The year 2012 has been full of false starts and unrealized promises in Egypt.
It has seen a transition, at least nominally, from military to civilian rule, but at great cost. It has witnessed the first post-Mubarak parliament, convened in January, and the judicial dissolution of its lower house less than six months later.
In February, soccer fans were massacred at the Port Said stadium, for which security forces were widely blamed. The massacre reverberated throughout Egyptian politics as soccer fans, known as Ultras, took their grievances to the streets.
Employees of several civil society organizations in Egypt were arrested in November 2011. American citizens were among those detained, creating the first of two major confrontations with the United States in 2012. Tensions reached their peak at the end of February when the U.S. government threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid if its citizens were not released. At the beginning of March, all but one detained American boarded a flight out of Cairo to the outrage of the Egyptian public.
In June, Egyptians voted their first civilian president into power after a contentious and unpredictable race. Mohamed Morsi, once a political prisoner and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, took office after an extremely close victory over Ahmed Shafiq. A former minister under Mubarak, Shafiq has since fled to the United Arab Emirates to escape corruption charges.
In August, Morsi issued a constitutional decree awarding himself executive and legislative powers and requesting the retirement of the military’s top generals. While the military no longer controls the executive, its influence in local governance and in Egypt’s economy has largely been preserved.
In September, protests over an American-made film, which was extremely insulting to Islam, threw Egypt’s relationship with the United States into deep turmoil. Protesters breached the U.S. embassy walls and President Morsi called for the filmmaker to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
As Ashraf Khalil writes, “The rage toward the makers of the film was understandable, but the anger directed at the US government was based on a widespread misunderstanding. Many of the protestors were angry at U.S. President Barack Obama for “allowing” the film to be made and not immediately prosecuting those behind it. The protestors here simply didn’t understand or believe that blasphemy is not a crime in the United States and most of Europe.”
Egypt’s constituent assembly struggled through the fall to reach a consensus, eventually leading to the resignation of most of its non-Islamist members. At the end of November, Morsi issued yet another constitutional decree, which, among other things, prevented the judiciary from dissolving the constituent assembly. The decree sparked weeks of protests between supporters and opponents of Morsi who sparred in bloody and divisive street battles.
The constituent assembly rushed to complete the constitution, and in December Egyptians voted to approve the new document. It seems unlikely that Morsi will significantly revise his majoritarian perspective on democracy in the coming year, but the acrimonious political environment this approach created makes his job much more difficult.
If the events of 2012 are any guide, Egyptians can expect their political leaders to continue slowly building the institutions and procedures of a post-Mubarak state while also struggling to deliver concrete improvements in social services and economic matters. Conversely, Egypt’s politicians should remember that Egyptians will not be content sitting on the sidelines after casting their votes.