Three years ago, and following a tumultuous democratic transition period, Egypt’s military formally regained full control of the nation’s political power structure. On July 3, 2013, following large nationwide protests against the Muslim Brotherhood, the military removed Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, the group that swept to victory in Egypt’s 2012 election season.
Many Egyptians supported the July 3 changing of the guard, believing that the military would be able to lead Egypt to a better form of democracy, or, at least, to more social stability. But military coups never lead to democracy, and Egypt’s coup has not generated greater levels of stability.
Unsurprisingly, and since the coup, Egypt’s military and police have solidified their authoritarian grip over Egypt. They have killed more than 2,000 protesters and arrested tens of thousands more; passed draconian legislation; shut down opposition media; carried out sham elections; and banned and eliminated their only serious political competitors. As political space has been closed off and government violence and repression have increased, ISIS has turned to Egypt as a new recruiting ground. Previously dormant terror cells have successfully recruited disaffected Egyptian youth. Terrorism has increased substantially. By any reasonable measure, Egypt is considerably less stable now than it was prior to the coup.
Despite some positive signs, Egypt’s economy continues to sputter. The Egyptian pound has weakened to an all-time low against the dollar, and has been trading recently on the black market at an eleven-to-one rate.
Given how badly things have gone with Egypt’s latest experiment with military dictatorship, the greatest lesson from the coup might be that procedural democracy is a necessary prerequisite for a nation’s socioeconomic success and survival. The fledgling democratic system that Egypt established in 2012 — codified in the 2012 Constitution — provided a better model than the current one, which solidifies the role of the Egyptian military as the nation’s primary power player.
Anti-democratic sentiment in Egypt grew in early 2013, while I was teaching at the American University in Cairo. I was surprised by how many academics, journalists, and self-proclaimed revolutionary activists were willing to casually circumvent democratic processes, all the while claiming they were democrats. They claimed that Morsi had himself sidestepped democracy, making their circumventions acceptable. When I challenged these people about their vision, I learned that many of them misunderstood key aspects of Morsi’s rule, and, in many cases, never read the 2012 constitution, which they often casually labeled as “the Muslim Brotherhood constitution.”
Morsi never circumvented democracy in the ways his opponents claimed. He was never a dictator, never a “Pharaoh.” An empirical examination of his abbreviated term in office suggests he was not an autocrat or terribly out of the ordinary for a leader of a nation in transition. None of this is to suggest that Morsi was a great president, or even a competent one. But he did not deserve — and Egypt did not deserve — a military overthrow.
But that overthrow came, in large part because of a deep disconnect between what Morsi’s opponents were saying about him and what he actually did. For instance, Morsi’s controversial November 2012 presidential decree was painted by his opponents as a serious blow to Egyptian democracy, and even good cause for military intervention. The decree, however, was significantly more benign than many Egyptians led on. It gave Morsi sweeping powers, but, as stated in the decree itself, only temporarily, until the end of parliamentary elections, which were expected within two months of the December 2012 Constitutional Referendum.
Arguably, and as articulated by Harvard’s Noah Feldman, the decree may have been a necessary check against Egypt’s corrupt, anti-democratic judiciary. Following the February 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, high ranking judges, many of whom had been appointed directly by Mubarak himself, systematically blocked Egypt’s democratic progress. The judiciary disbanded the first post-uprising parliament on a technicality, suspended the first post-uprising constituent assembly, and blocked an attempt to remove the Mubarak-era prosecutor general. The judiciary also threatened to disband the second constituent assembly. It was in this larger context that Morsi issued his temporary decree.
The decree may have been misguided, and it was certainly mishandled, but it did not make Morsi a dictator. In any case, the decree was in effect for only three weeks and was canceled a full six months before the coup.
Many of the other justifications for military intervention were grounded in myths about Morsi and the Brotherhood. For instance, Morsi’s opponents falsely claimed that Egypt was being “Brotherhoodized” and that the elected government was essentially treasonous.
The Democratic Framework
The Muslim Brotherhood is a deeply flawed group. If and when it is able to recover from the government’s latest round of repression, it will need significant reforms, particularly with respect to its political program. There is no question that the Brotherhood’s mistakes and miscalculations led to some of the public anger against it. But, for all its faults, the Brotherhood should be credited, at least, with helping to put in place what was arguably the most democratic political framework in Egypt’s modern history.
It is true that the 2012 constitution was blemished and inconsistent — I had personally hoped for something much better — but it is also true that it was superior to any of Egypt’s other modern constitutions, including the current one.
Under the 2012 constitutional system, Egyptians were free to join and form political parties — there were more than forty parties, all competing equally, at the time of Morsi’s ouster. Moreover, and importantly, the 2012 constitution created a semi-presidential system, featuring both a president and a prime minister and a legitimate balance of powers. According to constitutional law experts, the prime minister’s powers would have been on par with those of the president’s, making it impossible for a president to develop into a Mubarak-style dictator.
In short, the 2012 system, while flawed and in need of some meaningful revisions — particularly regarding the military’s role in politics and economics — was an important check against the kinds of dictatorships that had subjugated Egyptians for decades. Had anti-Morsi Egyptians been more politically astute, they would have organized and run in parliamentary elections (which were scheduled for the fall of 2013), taken a majority of the seats, had the final say on Egypt’s prime minister, and taken the lead on revising the constitution to their liking. They could have even removed Morsi legally using the 2012 constitution’s impeachment mechanism, which was laid out in Article 152.
In the worst case scenario, and assuming Morsi had ended his first term as poor a president as he was in his first year, Egyptians could have simply voted him out of office. In the process, they would have taught future Egyptian leaders an important lesson about the consequences of underperformance and political favoritism.
The Consequences of Dictatorship
Today, I still stand by what I told people during the first six months of 2013, as momentum for a military coup was building: voting works. It is true that voting does not always work perfectly and that it must be given time, but it is without question preferable to the kind of system that some Egyptians have historically seemed to prefer.
Military dictatorships, like the one currently operating in Egypt, are ripe for corruption and inefficiency — today, Egypt is both one of the world’s most corrupt and politically inefficient countries.
After centuries of civil war and slaughter, Western civilizations learned the hard way that voting was an important way of preventing violence and social chaos in societies characterized by deep ideological differences. Egypt must also learn this lesson. Rational discussion, debate, and procedural democracy — including voting — are essential prerequisites to an Egyptian turnaround.
The Sisi government is fledgling and Egyptians may, at some point, get another opportunity at democracy. One can hope that many of the nation’s citizens have learned over the past three years that free and fair elections are essential, and, importantly, so is respecting their results.