One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Is There Hope for Egyptian Democracy?

 /  Nov. 10, 2019, 5:01 p.m.


This summer, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took his country further away from the democracy it fought hard to build. On July 5, el-Sisi’s government passed an internet regulation law, granting the Egyptian government more power over online activism and free speech. In addition to the virtual censorship, the Media Regulation Law was passed at the end of the same month allowing censorship without any court order or legal basis. Since el-Sisi came into power five years ago, an estimated 60,000 people have been arrested in what Amnesty International is calling “the harshest government crackdown in Egyptian history.” If unchecked, el-Sisi’s actions threaten to destroy the democracy Egypt fought for in the Arab Spring and plunge the country back into authoritarianism. 

El-Sisi has strengthened his control over Egypt after an “unfair and unfree” election in 2018. In the lead up to the election, civilians were arrested for joining political campaigns, individuals announcing candidacy were detained, and the threat of military force was instituted against the country for talk of boycotts. Since that election, el-Sisi has increased his crackdown on protestors, activists, and general government critics all in the name of “combatting terrorism.” Thousands of civilians and journalists have been arrested over the past two months, causing a major setback for the democratic goals of the Arab Spring.

To understand how this political situation reflects a pattern of Egypt’s struggle for democracy, it is important to go back to 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of government corruption in Tunisia. His personal sacrifice set off a chain of anti-government protests across countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, as part of a movement now called the “Arab Spring.”

The Promise of the Arab Spring

Bouazizi was a twenty-six-year-old produce seller and the sole breadwinner for his family, in a fairly poor Tunisian economy. After a particularly humiliating public incident in which a policewoman shut down his business, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. His martyrdom became a symbol of defiance against government corruption and disregard for human rights. Due to the availability of cell phone recordings and social media, protests spread beyond the border. 

This movement gained momentum in Egypt for a variety of reasons. Egyptians struggled with poverty, an authoritarian government, and military involvement in politics. Egypt was also facing some of its highest rates of unemployment, particularly in the younger working generation. This increased tensions between educated youth and government individuals who were accused of not working to alleviate these difficulties. President Hosni Mubarak was widely disliked for his authoritarian regime, human rights violations, and government corruption. Under Mubarak, Egypt had been under a three-decade long “State of Emergency,” in which a government considers its nation in danger and suspends normal legal and political proceedings in order to increase control. This had given Mubarak the political and military power he needed to control the population and push his agenda. The Egyptian public’s resentment for poor living conditions and increasing government control found an outlet in the Arab Spring.

After facing almost a year of protests against police brutality, torture, and political oppression maintained by his government, Mubarak finally stepped down in February of 2011. Egypt later held its first competitive presidential elections in 2012, creating a cause for celebration as the tide seemed to have turned in favor of a democratic country. This process led to the election of Mohamed Morsi, a supporter of Islamic militancy and fundamentalism. While the election was more competitive, the military’s political involvement had only increased. It took control of the national budget and gave themselves the power to create laws, reducing the power of Morsi. To take control of the resulting contention, Morsi ordered generals to retire and gave himself the power to take any and all actions he thought necessary to protect Egypt in an attempt to minimize military control. However, the Islamists ended up writing a majority of the new constitution, culminating in the military receiving a power structure similar to its control under Mubarak, only this time, it was backed by law.

Regardless of these political struggles, Egypt had some important successes. The State of Emergency was terminated. For the first time in the Arab world a serving president, Mubarak was put on trial, and an authoritarian regime implementing human rights abuses was overthrown. But those successes simply furthered the cycle of democratization and subjugation, because, even as the authoritarian regime fell, accusations against Morsi were only beginning. Egyptians began protesting his rule as concerns about government-endorsed Islamist monopolization of politics increased. In addition, the very concerns that fed the protests during the Arab Spring—namely the bleak economy and inequality—remained unaddressed, leading to even more unrest in the country. So, within two years of Mubarak’s removal, thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square again, a key gathering place during the Arab Spring, to protest their supposedly fairly-elected Morsi, chanting about government corruption, military control, and his failure to lead “for all Egyptians.” 

In 2013, Morsi was removed from office by a military coup. This only made Egyptian democracy more fragile. The use of military strength in the coup contradicted the popular desire for less military political involvement civilians had advocated for less than three years prior. In the end, then general el-Sisi, a man who’d risen through the ranks of the army from the beginning of the Arab Spring and led the coup against Morsi, ended up receiving country-wide support for presidency. In 2014, el-Sisi was sworn in as the next Egyptian president.

Backsliding to Autocracy

While Egyptian citizens had rallied behind el-Sisi in the hope that finally there would be a president operating in favor of the people, his regime has only led to an extension of old grievances. His subjugation of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—seen through his shutting down of Tahrir Square and instituting new laws restricting journalism and anti-government statements—generated concern for what his regime means for the future of Egypt. He ordered the arrest of over 2,000 people this September, including minors. His austerity reforms in 2016 also caused uprisings. Thirty-three percent of Egyptians now live in poverty—up from 17 percent in 2000 under Mubarak. 

Looking at how Egypt’s government seems to have cycled back to its position of repression and poverty in 2011 generates questions about the effectiveness of Egyptian democracy. Egypt was able to instate a “democractic” president in 2011, but he failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people and only sparked more protests. And el-Sisi, the general leading the coup against Morsi, was supported despite the contradiction of his promise that the military would have limited political involvement. Ultimately, in less than ten years, Egypt has gone from one authoritarian regime to another authoritarian regime under the guise of democratic reform. 

What does this mean for Egypt’s democractic future—and is it truly possible for there to be one—given the emerging similarities between Mubarak’s regime and el-Sisi’s? Certainly Mubarak’s regime saw more human rights abuses than el-Sisi over its lifetime. But el-Sisi has improved on an authoritarian tactic, the subjugation of online speech. This is a frightening form of oppression because el-Sisi has the ability to stop information from spreading around the state and across the border—something Mubarak had not been able to do. By implementing laws and regulations systematically reducing freedom of speech and press, and by instituting a new State of Emergency in order to give himself more control over the military and police forces, el-Sisi has begun the process of reverting Egypt back into a more authoritarian regime. Regardless of the differences between leaders, the oppressive nature of the Egyptian government has survived despite the desire for democracy in the last ten years.

It is likely that Egypt’s future will involve protests and harsh crackdowns on civilians coupled with further economic hardship. There is a difference, however, between protests now and protests ten years ago. During the Arab Spring, the control of media was limited. While journalists were condemned for their involvement and state-run media outlets were censored, individuals continued to post on social media and fuel the movement. Videos of protests were released before they could be taken down by state governments. But this time, el-Sisi is being proactive, instituting media control laws and involving the police force in maintaining strict order and conformity. When it comes to journalism and the rhetoric about him, el-Sisi has been quick to shut down anything remotely critical of him or his government. Even social media accounts belonging to anti-el-Sisi individuals and groups have been censored by the government. 

Egypt has seen a return to authoritarianism under el-Sisi. Rights are continuously waived, freedoms are inhibited, and dissenting is swiftly condemned. Given this increasing repression, the question of whether Egypt can achieve a true democracy is more complicated than ever. Without the key freedoms and rights fought for during the Arab Spring, the country has not yet reached democratic governance. Instead, based on the current political climate, it is likely el-Sisi will face more rebellion from Egyptian citizens, drawing the country back into another round of their cycle of repression and revolt.

Roma Shah is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. The photographer was Mona. The original image can be found here.

Roma Shah


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>