On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of protesters congregated in Tahrir Square on Police Day to protest against the abuses of Mubarak’s police forces. The second anniversary of the revolution has been marked by large anti-Morsi demonstrations, as old problems of civil rights violations and economic stagnation remain major grievances, with few signs of progress on the horizon.
The violent Port Said demonstrations, triggered by the sentencing of militant soccer fans, and the anniversary protests in Cairo represent many Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with Mohammed Morsi’s autocratic governing style and the increased prominence of the anti-Morsi opposition movement. The opposition movement consists largely of anti-Islamist secularists and liberals, who oppose the Morsi governments’ handling of grey zone issues, like civil liberties, the treatment of religious minorities and women’s rights. The resignations of Vice President Mohammed Mekki, Minister of Communications Hani Mahmoud and the head of the Egyptian central bank immediately after the adoption of the Islamist constitution indicate extensive opposition to Morsi’s governing style exists within his own government and cabinet.
Unrest against Morsi’s government has been a regular feature of Egyptian politics since Morsi’s election as president last June. In August 2012, the Morsi government’s censorship of Al-Dustour for anti-regime activity was followed by the removal of Hussein Tantawi and other senior military commanders, possible because of widespread speculation of a coup against Morsi. Since the SCAF is a secular institution, Morsi’s critics viewed the firing of the SCAF commanders as another step towards turning Egypt into an Islamic republic. However, the military’s autonomy over determining the defense budget has ensured that it remains a major actor in Egyptian politics.
The withdrawal of Christians and non-Islamists from the Constituent Assembly during the constitutional referendum further increased concerns that Morsi was subverting secular institutions. Only 32% of Egyptians voted in the referendum and Mubarak-style voter suppression by Islamists reduced voter turnout to 7% among Christians in southern Egypt. Thus, Egypt’s transition from Mubarak’s electoral authoritarianism to competitive multi-party elections has been accompanied by the retention of anti-democratic tactics.
The other major grievance that has triggered the recent unrest is the worsening of Egypt’s economic malaise under Islamist rule. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s economy averaged 5% growth a year, despite high levels of income inequality and egregious corruption involving the military establishment and Mubarak’s son, Gamal. Since the 2011 revolution, Egypt has depleted the majority of its foreign exchange reserves and required a bailout from Qatar to avoid insolvency. Morsi’s authoritarian policies have contributed to prolonging the economic malaise, as continued unrest has limited economic development by deterring foreign investment and preventing the revival of tourism, which was once a vital source of income. During last month’s constitutional turmoil, Morsi was forced to call off a $4.8 billion IMF loan and little tangible progress has been made in reducing Egypt’s budget deficit.
Ensuring access to American aid and Western economic assistance could alleviate Egypt’s economic plight, and the debt forgiveness that followed the 1991 Gulf War illustrates the rewards of cooperation with the West. However, Morsi’s strident anti-Israeli rhetoric, American wariness of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s press censorship and suppression of civil society institutions, and Egypt’s increasingly strained relations with regional actors like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have made economic and military aid to Egypt increasingly difficult to justify. The recent delivery of F-16 jets and Abrams tanks components to Egypt has further strained relations with the United States, which has already waived human rights conditions for providing military aid. Islamist parties gained popular support because of their opposition to Mubarak’s strategic ties to the US and emphasis on peace with Israel, but Morsi’s anti-Western approach could seriously weaken the Egyptian economy.
Political developments in Egypt have historically been considered harbingers of events in the Arab world. This view is exemplified by the anti-monarchy uprisings that followed Nasser’s 1952 coup, the rise of Pan-Arabism, economic liberalization following Sadat’s Infitah, and most recently, the Arab Spring protests. As Egypt has traditionally viewed itself as the leader of the Arab world, Morsi, by resorting to many of Mubarak’s anti-democratic policies, has created a dangerous precedent for other transitional states in the Middle East
In spite of civil rights violations and tensions regarding Kurdish nationalism, Erdogan’s moderate Islamist AKP government in Turkey can be seen as a much more effective, although not ideal, model of governance for fledgling Islamist governments to follow – a model that allows for the civilian government to maintain control over the military. Morsi’s authoritarian governing style however prevents Egypt from emulating the AKP’s success, and Egypt continues to be locked in a destructive cycle of unrest, authoritarianism and economic stagnation with no relief in sight.
– Samuel Ramani
(Featured Image: European External Action Service – EEAS, Creative Commons, Flickr)
(Photo Body 1: sierragoddess, Creative Commons, Flickr)