By Ben Stevenson
Nearly three and a half years after the departure of Hosni Mubarak, it is difficult not to appreciate the durability of his 30-year term as president of Egypt. Since 2011, the country has witnessed a series of leadership changes at breakneck speed, starting with the ouster of Mubarak and transfer of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in February 2011.
A little more than a year later, Mohammed Morsi became the first freely-elected, nonmilitary Egyptian president, but with dramatically diminished power under a SCAF addendum to the military’s post-revolution constitutional declaration. Morsi then moved to “forcibly retire” senior military leaders, including Tantawi and the heads of the air force, navy and air defense in August 2012. The new president also negated the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration, restoring his executive authorities and naming a new minister of defense, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.
However, an empowered Morsi did not bring stability to Egyptian politics. Instead, a polarizing struggle for control erupted, pitting Morsi’s administration and his Islamist allies in the Egyptian legislature against anti-Islamist forces in the judiciary, civil service and security forces. The conflict escalated from the courts to the streets in late 2012 after Morsi attempted to issue a constitutional decree raising his decisions above judicial review. The crisis reached a tipping point in 2013, when Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court nullified the electoral legitimacy of Egypt’s Islamist-controlled upper house, which had been serving as the only functioning legislative body after the court dissolved the lower house in 2012 ahead of Morsi’s ascendancy to office.
The ruling added symbolic weight to the growing “tamarrud” (rebellion) movement, a broad-based petition campaign calling on Morsi to stand for early elections. The group organized a massive demonstration for the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s presidency on June 30, 2013. On that day, millions of Egyptians again took to the streets to demand his departure. This time, the military stepped in with a statement that Morsi had 48 hours to act according to the “people’s demands.” When this ambiguous ultimatum was not met, the army removed him from power. Whether considered a coup or not, the end result of the June 30 protests was widespread violence and the third transfer of power in three years, this time back to the military led by General Sisi.
The revolving door of Egyptian leadership seemingly came full circle earlier this month with the transformation of General Sisi into President Sisi after he won the May presidential election with 97 percent of the vote. On the one hand, the results from the Egyptian Elections Committee show the impact of Morsi supporters boycotting the voting process. In the eight Egyptian governorates in which Morsi won more than 60 percent of the vote in the 2012 runoff against Ahmed Shafiq, participation in the 2014 election dropped by an average of 13 percent, from 47 percent to 34 percent of registered voters. Nonetheless, by most measures Sisi’s sweeping victory was genuine. Including an unplanned third day of voting, national turnout reached 45 percent, matching the roughly 50 percent turnout in 2012. For the moment, President Sisi — with the cult-like backing of national media — appears to have solidified his position as the defender of Egypt from a Muslim Brotherhood takeover.
However, recent events seem to show the new president has learned little from the past mistakes of Mubarak and Morsi. After the violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and security forces last year, thousands of Brotherhood members were arrested and hundred have been sentenced to death, including the organization’s top leadership last Thursday. The political repression has also expanded to target journalists and the leaders of the April 6 youth movement, which was a driving force in the initial 2011 protests against Mubarak. In addition, Egypt continues to face serious economic and security challenges, from the plummeting tourism revenue and the country’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to the lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula.
Rather than building consensus and increasing moderation, the transfer of power in Egypt has led to deeper cynicism and polarization. Perhaps what Egypt needs is something Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef pointed to in a poignant op-ed during the wave of violence following Morsi’s removal in July 2013. Youssef wrote:
“Humanity has now become an isolated island among wild waves of discrimination and extremism. On this island live those isolated few, their voices fading in the midst of the roaring cries for vengeance and murder. I’m not optimistic about a population increase on that island anytime soon. But maybe in the future people will migrate to it and try to get to know this thing called humanity that we’ve all been stripped of. What I fear most is if a time comes when we pass by that island and cry in dismay: ‘Alas, nobody lives there anymore.’”
In yet another discouraging development for Egypt, Youssef cancelled his popular TV show earlier this month, citing pressure from the broadcaster and fears about the safety of his family.
Ultimately, the role of any national leader is not just to bring security and stability, but also to consider and serve the interests of all their citizens. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be the first major test of Sisi’s intentions — to move the country forward or to revert to the previous model of autocratic, military-backed rule. For now, while the election of Abdul Fatah el-Sisi may have united anti-Islamist sentiment across the country, Egypt itself is no closer to realizing the core aims or the core humanity at the heart of the 2011 revolution demanding greater opportunity, justice and dignity.
Ben Stevenson is the policy assistant to Baker Institute founding director Edward P. Djerejian. He holds a Master of Arts in Arab studies from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and graduated cum laude from Rice University with a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.