Egypt – Straightaway from Democracy to Authoritarianism?

When you look back at the first democratic experiment in Germany, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), it is a bitter irony that a democratic system with democratic elections brought the fascist National Socialists to power, a party that subsequently reversed this democratic process and transformed the German government into a dictatorship. According to many Western voices, the same could now be the case with the democratically elected regimes emerging from the revolutions of the Arab Spring, regimes that are increasingly influenced by alleged ‘undemocratic Islamic parties’. Egypt is an interesting example, since the recent presidential elections have swept Mohamed Morsi, the favourite of the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, into office.

Image courtesy of Jonathon Rashad, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Jonathon Rashad, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The Muslim Brotherhood has often been criticised for attempting to establish an Islamic theocracy in post-Mubarak Egypt, something the movement has always denied.  Morsi has, on several occasions, stressed his commitment to democracy and a united Egypt that also includes those not gathering under the banner of the Brotherhood – a stance that has drawn fire from the radical al-Nour party.  However, Morsi’s regime has increasingly been accused of undermining the democratic system, raising concerns whether the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing of ‘taking over’ the political system and establishing a genuine authoritarian regime. The following incidents have been brought forward in support of this view.

Most prominently, President Morsi issued on the 22nd of November a contentious decree that would have granted him far-reaching powers and immunity from legal oversight, though he withdrew due to enormous public pressure. Governmental attacks on the media and freedom of speech have also been endemic. Amongst the more prominent victims is the television host Bassem Youssef who is facing charges for disturbing public peace because he has been critical of Morsi and his administration. Last year, the police cracked down on the newspaper ‘The Constitution’ after the paper had criticised the regime for oppressing political rivals, intimidating the opposition, and political arbitration.

The country’s new constitution – which proclaims Sharia law as its guiding principle – raises further concerns.  The non-neutral and religious grounds of the Egyptian constitution automatically alienate those who are not included, for instance liberals or members of the religious minorities, such as the Christian Copts in Egypt. The same counts for the ‘Islam is the Solution’-slogan on which the Brotherhood campaigned. Mohamed El-Sayed Habib, First Deputy of the Chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “Islam […] is a comprehensive program that encompasses all aspects of life: it is a state and a country, a government and people, ethics and power, mercy and justice, culture and law, science and justice, resources and wealth, defense and advocacy, an army and an idea, a true belief and correct acts of worship”. Even if a majority of Egyptians holds a similar view, any nation-building or reconciling process becomes difficult if minorities have to bow to too many laws drafted to favour one particular religion or worldview. As a result, the trust in democratic procedures and the regime itself crumbles. The recent riots in the wake of the verdicts against football hooligans, who were sentenced to death, show how far away Egypt is from truly becoming one nation.

The Constitution has come under attack for being overly vague and broad. For instance, Article 44 prohibiting “any attack or abuse of all religious messengers or prophets” fails to define what exactly constitutes an attack. This makes it easy for those who want to see an offence to prosecute alleged violations of the rule, to silence criticism, and ultimately to strip the citizens of their right to freedom of expression and belief. Similarly, Article 148 of the Constitution sets out the principles for declaring a state of emergency, but fails to define the circumstances in which a state of emergency might be declared or what specific measures can be taken under such a state.  The Constitution also does not fully guarantee the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers: for example, the Minister of Justice is granted specific powers regarding the appointment, disciplining, and retirement of judges.

Furthermore, supporters of the Brotherhood have been accused of unauthorised assumption of authority in January’s street battles between the supports of the current regime and its opponents, with instances of detaining, interrogating, and even torturing members of the opposition and by forming illegal para-police militias performing duties normally reserved for the state. The Muslim Brotherhood’s increasingly menacing behaviour on the ground has already made some supporters of the group rethink their opinion about the movement. One said: “People don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they used to, because they saw how they tried to control everything and how they beat people up.”

If these are the first signs of a coming authoritarian regime or just the flaws of democracy in its infancy, no one can be certain. Nevertheless, a legitimate democracy in Egypt cannot be a western liberal democracy modelled after European states, given the tremendous cultural-historical differences. However, it should be in the interest of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood not to attack the democratic system that has created them and thus repeat the authoritarian shortcomings of the pre-civil war Mubarak-regime.   Rather, the focus should be to develop an original “Egyptian democracy“-approach able to guarantee basic rights, such as the freedom of expression and the protection of minority groups of any kind, as well as the separation powers – in short, a democracy most Egyptians can identify with but which might also carry the thumbprint of the movement.

3 Replies to “Egypt – Straightaway from Democracy to Authoritarianism?”

  1. A person should make well sure that they have sufficient persuasive evidence before attempting to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and another leader’s regime. In the case against Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, this article fails to present such evidence, instead relying on seemingly inconsequential “affronts to democracy” (ambiguity of law, slight overlap of government powers – both of which exist in constitutions of Western democracies) and vague accusations of non-governmental actors to support a very serious criticism. As a result, the claim made by this article is as unfounded as it is offensive. I hope that the FAR is more careful to eschew fear mongering and straw boogeymen in future publications.

  2. My main point here simply is that there is indeed the danger that the Egyptian democracy might be turned in something else. This is no fear mongering, but a matter of fact (people usually do not start large scale riots, as they happen in Egypt, when there is no profound disagreement with the current political system and climate). The comparison with Weimar here is just an example of another democratic system which repealed itself by democratic means (myself being German, this is the first example which came to my mind). And to compare the flaws of a stable, consolidated Western democracy – which surely are most far from being perfect – with those of any emerging democracy is simply a denial of reality. France will not suddenly turn within the next years into an upright authoritarian regime-would you give the same guarantee for Egypt?

  3. Egypt is undoubtedly experiencing a period of unrest and will have to deal with a number of issues before the government can be said to have achieved stability. However, your parallel suggests that Morsi is on his way to becoming a modern day Hitler, which is entirely out of line and unrepresentative of the transgressions of power that Morsi is being accused of. No matter where you are from – and in this case, especially where you are from – you should know the weight of such an accusation and that referring to the end of the Weimar Republic evokes specific implications about the new regime. Morsi is not a fascist; he is not a warmongering megalomaniac; he is not committing acts of genocide. It is possible to criticize him without crossing that line. To do otherwise is indeed fear-mongering, as it automatically delegitimizes his regime through hyperbole and distracts from the actual criticisms that can and should be made.

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