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Whoops: Living With the Consequences of Democracy in Egypt

By: Christopher Linnan On November 22, Mohamed Morsi[i], the Egyptian president and member of the Islamic brotherhood, issued a presidential decree. This decree essentially destroyed the power of the judiciary in Egypt - at least temporarily, while the new Egyptian constitution is passed.  The timing of this political decree is most likely tied to the upsurge in domestic and international popularity that Morsi received after helping to broker the temporary ceasefire in Gaza.[ii]  This decree, along with the international goodwill, will ensure that the Islamic Brotherhood’s version of the constitution will pass.  By neutering the judiciary, Morsi has subverted the democratic process and he has given America an excellent indicator of the shifting mood in the Middle East.  However, instead of recoiling at the idea of a democratic Islamist government in Egypt we should seek to embrace it and ensure that Egypt remains a strong ally.

The transition of any nation-state from autocratic to democratic rule will always be a difficult task fraught with countless obstacles and difficulties.  There are countless problems, including entrenched ruling elites that often remain in quasi-control, the competing interests of foreign countries that attempt to influence the new country, and pent-up sectarian and ethnic tensions that are more easily dealt with by dictatorships and autocratic governments.  Unfortunately, Egypt is facing all three of these challenges as it struggles to become a democracy.

It is impossible to measure the psyche of any nation that has been ruled by a strong-armed dictator, but one can safely say that democracy will always be somewhat fragile.  One need look no further than Russia, which has struggled to adjust to democracy, despite the rosy prognoses following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since removing every official associated with the Mubarak regime is unfeasible, Egyptians have to tolerate the many high-ranking members of the judiciary, military, and other government agencies with ties to the ousted president.

These connections are not negative things unless these former Mubarak allies prove to be obstinate.  Unfortunately, the Egyptian Constitutional Court has proven to be hostile towards democracy in the past.  The court’s decision to dissolve the rightfully-elected parliament on a technicality aroused deep controversy inside and outside of Egypt.  Harvard law professor Noah Feldman pointed out “that one of the court’s justices admitted that the court was on the side of the military regime all along and prepared its rulings against the legislature from the moment the elections took place.”[iii]  Mubarak’s decision to temporarily nullify its power may be highly controversial, but his options were limited as the court may very well have nullified any constitution he passed.

One can make a strong argument that the current situation in Egypt parallels the decades-old struggle in Turkey between the secularist military and the Islamists, eventually culminating in the Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide victory in the 2002 elections.  The AKP has maintained a strong grip, while severely limiting the military and secularists through democratic and undemocratic means.[iv]  Unfortunately, America and the EU traditionally favored the military and the secularists, a stance which has had negative consequences since the AKP came to power.  There have already been numerous disputes between Turkey and Israel over the past several years, which culminated in the notorious Gaza flotilla incident.  Somer Cagaptay summarizes Turkey’s transformation best when he writes that unlike in the past, “Turkey’s continued cooperation with the West is far from guaranteed.”[v]  Egypt is not America’s closest ally in the Middle East, but it would be unwise to antagonize another Middle Eastern power over religious ties.

One can safely say that secularists are a minority in Egypt, as evidenced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victories.  It also appears likely that the new constitution will be approved by voters.[vi]  It is important to remember, though, that “the opposition to the president, though significant, remains fractured and uncoordinated, and in any case is far narrower than it was in 2011.”[vii]  The Muslim Brotherhood has triumphed in every election since the disposal of Hosni Mubarak despite a hostile military and judiciary. Thus, America needs to carefully engage them and try to ensure the interests of our allies and us are promoted.  If the United States pins its hopes on some type of silent secular majority, we are going to be sorely disappointed and risk causing irreparable damage to our relationship with Egypt.

One of the indirect results of the American budget deficit debate is that we have started hearing a lot more about what Congress spends our money on.  Among the most hotly-debated government spending projects is the billions of dollars that we provide to other countries through foreign aid.[viii]  Egypt is the fourth highest recipient of US aid, as it gets approximately $1.5 billion from the United States every year.[ix]  The origin of this generous financial aid is the 1978 Camp David Accords, in which Egypt recognized Israel in return for land concessions.  Some of the angry rhetoric from the Muslim Brotherhood has combined with general American uneasiness about Islamists to endanger this aid and threatens to create a wedge between Egypt and us. As long as Egypt refrains from attacking Israel or any of its other neighbors there is no basis for an end to American aid.  We cannot stop supporting Egypt based on predictions that it will eventually be transformed into a theocracy.  America must continue to support Egypt, otherwise we risk hurting losing another key ally in the Middle East.

Christopher Linnan is a rising senior majoring in history. His chief interests are contemporary European and American politics. He is currently studying abroad in Dortmund, Germany.


[i] A variety of English spellings for his name exist, but according his advisors in a November 28 interview with TIME, he prefers Morsi.  For the purposes of this story I will use this spelling, although one encounters alternate spellings such as Morsey, Mursi, etc.

[ii] Champion, Marc. “Iran and Egypt win in Gaza.” Bloomberg 23 November 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-23/iran-and-egypt-won-in-gaza.html, accessed 29 November 2012.

[iii] Felman, Noah. “Egypt’s Mursi turns tyrant to save democracy.” Bloomberg 27 November 2012,

[iv] To be fair, the secularists and the military often repressed the Islamists through undemocratic means.  The threat of a military coup was omnipresent when the AKP took power in 2002, as the Islamists could point to the Turkish military’s long history of interfering in democratic politics.

[v] Cagaptay, Somer. “Is Turkey leaving the West?” Foreign Affairs 26 October 2009, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65661/soner-cagaptay/is-turkey-leaving-the-west, accessed 30 November 2012.

[vi] CNN Wire Staff. “Movement on new Egyptian constitution, despite fervent opposition.” CNN 30 November 2012, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/29/world/meast/egypt-protests/index.html?hpt=hp_t1, accessed 30 November 2012.

[vii] Masoud, Tarek. “Don’t blame the Muslim Brotherhood for Morsy power grab.” CNN 27 November 2012, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/27/opinion/masoud-morsy-muslim-brotherhood/index.html?iid=article_sidebar, accessed 30 November 2012.

[viii] This in itself is fairly ironic, as our approximately $60 billion dollar foreign aid budget is peons compared to the money we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, social spending, and the Department of Defense.

[ix] Wingfield, Brian. “Making sense of U.S. foreign aid to Egypt and elsewhere.” Forbes 29 January 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/brianwingfield/2011/01/29/making-sense-of-u-s-foreign-aid-to-egypt-and-elsewhere/, accessed 29 November 2012.

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