New Egypt’s Democracy Woes - Challenges for President Morsi

Melissa M. Cyrill is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 10, 2013

    The most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform itself.
    - Alexis de Tocqueville1

    The perversity thesis: Any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
    - Albert O. Hirschman2


    Egypt, one of the flowers of the sudden and unique revolutionary movement called the Arab Spring, is at a sensitive stage in its political timeline. The determined power of the cascading protests across the country over the past two years was exemplified in the occupation of Tahrir Square and the eventual fall of its president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. Despite a temporary and controversial transitional take over by the military's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt was able to achieve some of its basic democratic aspirations during the election process that culminated in the presidency of Mohammed Morsi.

    The elections mainstreamed many of the country’s disenfranchised and marginalised groups and initiated some critical debates on who could best lead Egypt out of its stagnancy and transform the country into an open and thriving polity and economy. The Muslim Brotherhood’s success in the elections led to a new wave of protests due to concerns about the ability of President Morsi to look beyond the demands and aspirations of his supporters and secure the development and rehabilitation of the whole of Egyptian society in an inclusive manner. These protests gained pace when Morsi accelerated the process of a constitutional makeover by assuming greater powers for himself. However, despite the endless media criticism and adverse international attitudes, Morsi has been able to tide over the resulting crisis. Egypt needs to move forward now that the popular referendum has approved the new draft constitution and Morsi has signed it into law. Forward movement towards social, economic and political reconstruction will, however, require not just stable and transparent governance but also the co-option of competing stakeholders.

    Egypt’s Multiple Stakeholders

    President Morsi

    Morsi presents quite an enigmatic image to the rest of the world and Egyptian society. While his resume portrays an individual immersed in hardline politicking, ideological rigidity and intolerance of dissension,3 he himself speaks of an affirmative need for creating a new and free Egypt that will accommodate diversity of opinion. His conversations and interviews are couched in the appropriate language with phrases such as ensuring a ‘culture of cooperation’, ‘true freedom of faith’, social and human development4 even as his actions indicate otherwise, often driving forward policy changes by decree rather than negotiation.5 Egypt’s opposition, particularly the secular and liberal voices as well as women, question his actions as furthering an Islamic agenda. Analysing his tactics around the hurried passing of the new draft constitution, Morsi can be said to have easily fallen into the classic revolutionary trap - demanding fast and particular changes in an arbitrary manner to ensure the actualisation of his understanding of the right changes for his people.

    While the people seem to have confirmed their faith in the President in the recent referendum, it is by no means a popular approval given that the voters represented a very small margin of Egypt’s electorate. Further, Morsi will simultaneously seek to placate the Islamists in his party and continue his unsteady balancing act for better or for worse because of his close familiarity with the Brotherhood's unparalleled mobilizing capabilities. The Brotherhood is specifically structured so that its Guidance Office can direct thousands of five-to-eight-person cells known as "families," which are situated in practically every Egyptian neighbourhood, to any location that it chooses.6 According to Eric Tager of the Washington Institute, “The Brotherhood remains extremely confident that it can overwhelm its current opponents, and Morsi is unlikely to respond to protests that his own supporters can exceed.”7

    Among the various challenges ahead are: The judiciary's suspicions, indicated by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) constantly monitoring his moves during the drafting of the new constitution. The political opposition groups have time and again been able to utilise this disconnect between the executive and the judiciary by raising various legal challenges that ultimately led to Morsi's erratic manoeuvring epitomised by his November decree. After weeks of constitutional crises, Morsi was able to sign the draft constitution into law following the successful referendum on December 26.

    One of the positive aspects of the new constitution is that it limits the president to two four-year terms in office. Morsi has a testing time ahead as he deals with the need for economic reforms and stabilizing the political situation. Moreover, the low turnout of 32 per cent during the referendum is a big blemish on the Brotherhood’s victory and represents an opportunity for the opposition as many unharnessed votes could come into play during the parliamentary elections due in two months.8 Morsi and the Brotherhood are in need of allies as they see some of their support being siphoned off by the more radical Salafists9 and the new Al-Watan party which split from the Salafist Nour Party, further dividing the radical Islamic vote.10


    The People's Assembly - the lower house and legislative body of the Egyptian parliament - was dissolved by a decree issued by SCAF on June 15, 2012. Its dissolution was based on the observation of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) that the law governing the elections was unconstitutional since party members should not have been allowed to contest one-third of the seats meant for independents. The dissolution may be justified in the light of the attempt by the judiciary and military to ensure a democratically elected body, although the implications could prove to be counter-productive. The remaining upper house or the Shura Council, supposed to be a toothless consultative body, is not affected by the SCC's ruling or the SCAF decree as its elections were separate from those to the People's Assembly (despite being elected on a meagre turnout of just 7 per cent, with an 83 per cent Islamist majority).11

    Given this state of affairs, President Morsi has held vital legislative powers for months and in a clever political move endowed the Shura Council with temporary legislative powers (through the Islamist-backed new constitution) despite it being heavily unrepresentative until elections (scheduled for two months from now) will fill the disbanded People's Assembly. This means that parliament may not be an independent body in the crucial interim period and will quite possibly serve as a mechanism for Morsi to further his economic and political plans: secure vital funds from multilateral institutions and Western countries and oversee the passing of a new law on the rules for parliamentary elections.12 Morsi has currently appointed 90 members to the Islamist-dominated Shura Council in an attempt to make the body more representative. Of these, around 30 are Islamists and a dozen minority Christians.13 But this move has also met with scepticism from the opposition.

    The situation in Egypt thus continues to remain tense post the referendum. The secular and liberal opposition consistently question the use of the new constitution by the Islamists to monopolize power and have repeated calls for new revolutionary protests.

    Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC)

    The Supreme Constitutional Court, a key political player since Mubarak's downfall, is the ultimate judicial body in Egypt. It decides cases in which the constitutionality of a legislation or regulation has been challenged. Often accused of being Mubarak appointees, the opinions of the court's judges are suspect as the SCC's reputation and record of independent action has supposedly declined in the past decade. According to Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "what justices on the SCC tend to share, despite diverse orientations, is a strong sense of mission to the law and abstract constitutional principles.” Brown considers their attitude to be analogous to that of SCAF, which is why suspicions about their motivations are rife.

    It was to institute a check on the SCC (whose judgements were tempering the rise of the Islamist parties in the state institutions) that Morsi had passed a constitutional declaration in November 2012 challenging the authority of the SCC, provided the Shura council with immunity from judicial purview and removed the SCC's power to rule on the legitimacy of any laws and decrees issued by him until the ratification of the new constitution and the next round of parliamentary elections. Wary of getting further politically entangled and due to immense psychological and physical pressure from the executive and supporters of the president, the SCC judges have announced that they are suspending the court's sessions for an interim period. The SCC is divided between less and more activist judges but senior judges for the most part view themselves as sentinels of the public interest and the interests of the state while also considering themselves above politics, democratic mechanisms and accountability.


    The presidency in Egypt has had a long established relationship with the military with the three presidents before the revolution all possessing military backgrounds. While Morsi may have secured the executive and legislative powers from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military is still widely considered to be the most powerful government entity as is reflected in the recently approved constitution.

    The Egyptian military has about 460,000 personnel and possesses vast assets in land holdings and businesses and is an important provider of employment and sense of national identity to many Egyptians. The estimates on the size of military-owned industries vary widely. They could account for anywhere between 8 and 40 per cent of Egypt's GNP, but since their revenues are a state secret, along with the military's budget, this cannot be verified. The military-industrial nexus sees the production of military hardware as well as products and services for the domestic consumer economy. The military's influence also extends far beyond its own institutions and businesses; it is an intensely influential political stakeholder. A short and intensely controversial stint through SCAF may have left the generals a bit sore, which means that they will support those who preserve their interests. Additionally, a preponderance of provincial governors are in effect retired army officers and former generals run a number of big civilian institutions and public sector corporations, including the three main land-developing authorities.

    Keeping all this in mind, Morsi has tactfully engineered the backing of Egypt's armed forces for the new constitution by enshrining their privileged role into the constitution's principles. For instance, Article 195 holds that the defence minister must be a member of the armed forces "appointed from among its officers”.14 Similarly, Article 197 establishes a National Defence Council to oversee the military's budgets; at least eight of the council's fifteen seats must be held by high-ranking military officials, avoiding parliamentary oversight.15 Moreover, Article 198 maintains the military judiciary as "an independent judiciary" allowing civilians to be tried before military courts for "crimes that harm the armed forces."16 This would mean the army would control its own budget and operations and would be in every effective sense free from civilian oversight.17

    Such a move by Morsi secures the military's vital support as Egypt embarks upon the uneasy road ahead. This was indicated by Morsi’s 9 December decree, which authorised the armed forces to protect national institutions and polling places and allowed soldiers under the direction of the defence minister to arrest and try civilians under the military code of justice.

    Political Parties

    Among Morsi's biggest political challengers is the National Salvation Front (NSF), an amalgamated coalition that was formed following Morsi’s November constitutional decree. Consisting of about 17 political parties, the NSF has an unwieldy umbrella constitution covering a diverse range of liberal, secular and leftist groups, which begets the question of its sustenance and durability. It also raises problems about the kind of agenda that needs to be formulated as opposed to the Islamist one posited by the Brotherhood. One of the essential criticisms against the NSF is that prominent liberal and leftists figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa have little in common with each other besides a fear of Egypt's potential Islamisation.18 Further, given the organized nature of the Islamist parties with their cultivated, incorruptible and religiously conservative image, the NSF is not likely to succeed in its current avatar. Additionally, the NSF constituents are inexperienced, narrowly based or tainted by association with the fallen Mubarak regime.

    Nevertheless, the coalition has been the foremost check on Morsi’s centralising tendencies. Given the intensely fractious nature of the opposition parties, the coalition does present a much needed united, albeit shaky, formation and holds importance in securing alternative voices as the post-revolutionary undertaking in Egypt seeks to safeguard its society as open, diverse and inclusive. For instance, opponents of the constitution within the coalition have accused the charter of favouring Islamists and not sufficiently protecting the rights of women or Christians. They intend to continue to oppose it in the next election campaign and in parliament.19 However, with a new set of parliamentary elections looming in the near horizon and internal quarrels within the coalition over the campaign and running of candidates on the same electoral list, the NSF might not be able to constructively put forth its agenda of reconstruction. The ability to formulate cohesive ideas from differing platforms ranging from the nationalist Wafd Party to the leftist Popular Current to the Socialist Alliance seems all but far fetched. For the National Salvation Front to redeem its political value, it needs to firstly, streamline and reorganize itself systematically and also expel parties that had been earlier associated with the Mubarak regime.20 The only way that the NSF can mobilise mass support anywhere near the levels of the Muslim Brotherhood is by connecting with the large segments of the population that have borne the brunt of the nation's economic woes. It is by addressing their bread-and-butter concerns and formulating a concrete plan and message rather than merely opposing the President and feeding on the revolution’s nostalgia with calls to Tahrir Square that the coalition will become a credible alternative to the people.

    Going Forward

    To successfully rebuild itself, new Egypt must avoid the inevitable revolutionary trappings of political expediency before embarking upon systemic change. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood need not be demonised, yet they themselves must realise their democratic responsibility. Morsi no longer represents the interests of Egypt’s sizeable religiously conservative Muslims alone, but also a number of other minority groupings – Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sufis, Bahais and other linguistic and ethnic minorities. While the time of political somnolence has indeed passed, Morsi must resist the temptation to curb the spirit of the protestors through “emergency powers”.

    One of the advantages Morsi enjoys as of now is that his party has the most clear and ‘legitimate’ agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood has been presented with a crucial opportunity to govern and administer after decades of underground opposition. If they indulge in political opportunism, they won’t merely risk losing their credibility, but will additionally lose out on the opportunity to reshape and renew their nation in the face of strengthening political threats and possible civil war. Further, while the military and judiciary are effective stakeholders, they are already embedded within the institutional system. The military do not see any reason to withdraw its silent support from Morsi given their constitutional privileges. The judiciary on the other hand need to build its own consensus over the role it would like to play in Egypt’s governance with implications for its ‘credible image’. Both the judiciary and the president should be able to achieve a working relationship to prevent the fragile peace from deteriorating into a chaos fuelled by animosity.

    The people of Egypt have exhausted their revolutionary spirit and deserve stability and harmony. Morsi must take advantage of this fact and engage in a real and constant dialogue involving all the country’s stakeholders. It is only when and if the three authorities – legislature, executive and the judiciary – interact and work in tandem with one another can effective and inclusive governance begin and Egypt’s flailing economy sputter back to life. Confidence in Morsi’s Egypt will emerge only when his government becomes involved, transparent and responsive rather than domineering and erratic. The opposition for its part must learn to negotiate and engage with all parts of Egypt rather than being dismissive of those who don’t speak the language of liberalism, socialism and/or secular thought. Only then will old and new Egypt converge and be able to move forward.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.