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Paradox in Egyptian power relations

Monday 13 January 2014

In 2011, after a very long time, free democratic elections were held in Egypt.1 Since 1956, the country had known a long period of presidential and/or military autocracy under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Each of these three men filled a high position in the Egyptian army beforehand; it was military power on which the presidents based their reign.

In the book by Douglas North, Violence and Social Order, a strong argument is being made that the ‘monopoly of violence’ should be with the central government – this is one of the most important prerequisites for a stable society. Without this prerequisite it would be too easy for alien powers (either domestic or foreign) to challenge the central authority. This clarifies to a certain degree why armies play such a central role: they consolidate the power for the political authority. It also clarifies why the insurgents in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt reached their primary goals, namely tearing down the dictator. At certain points during the uprisings, the army chose to ally with the people, thus leaving the presidential sides.

We can draw certain parallels between the uprising in Syria, which we can describe as – at least for now – failed, and  for instance Egypt. The uprising in Egypt began because of discontent with the regimes; direct grievances had to do with corruption and economic failure. Similar sounds are heard in Syria: suppression, economic malaise, corruption, etc. The role of the Syrian army however, is different than that of the Egyptian army. Whereas the Egyptian army decided to support the claims of the people, the Syrian army largely remained loyal to the president. At this moment the Syrian presidential and national army is one of the strongest parties in the conflict, especially now it is ideologically and militarily supported by Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah.

In Egypt, after the victory of the people on president Mubarak, free elections were declared by the army top. Free elections that were won by the Muslim Brotherhood, that had dedicated itself to supporting the poor(er) Islamic citizens during the dictatorial reign. The Brotherhood gained immense support among large parts of the population – a lead that could not be caught up upon by other ambitious political parties. A logic – and democratic! – consequence from the election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the election of  a president from the Brotherhood’s ranks. Morsi’s government did not last long, as the Egyptian army decided that the proposed constitution was not acceptable. Morsi’s removal by the army top was justified for a couple of reasons; Morsi granted himself almost unlimited power, sacked officials with whom he disagreed, and did not take freedom of speech all too serious. Last but not least, the economic situation of the country worsened dramatically, despite foreign (financial) aid.

According to the Lebanese journalist Hussein Yaakoub, this development is quite typical for Arab countries: they are excellently capable of bringing down an authority (phase one), but it remains too difficult for them to subsequently make a transition to democracy (phase two).2 The country’s officials are viewed as belonging to the old, corrupt regime, and are therefore sacked from their positions, leaving no professionals to establish or retain institutions. For reasons of national security the Egyptian army holds on to the momentum, since ‘revolutionary slogans’ are not going to provide jobs and food for the people.

The paradox is complete. In order to have power, one needs military strength. Mubarak and his predecessors did well with this – indirect – military power, until the president was removed. Subsequently he was replaced with direct military power, impersonated by general Al-Sisi. Democratic ambition can be considered the biggest loser.

  1. For a timeline on the Egyptian revolution of 2011, visit: “Timeline: Egypt’s Revolution. A Chronicle of the Revolution that Ended the Three-Decade-Long Presidency of Hosni Mubarak,” Aljazeera, (24 Feb. 2011), visited 11 Jan. 2011.
  2. H. Yaakoub, Perspectives. Special Issue: People’s Power – The Arab World in Revolt 2 (May 2011): 35-43.

democracy, Egypt, Morsi, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi

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