Home / Global Governance and Human Rights / Egypt’s Struggle in the wake of Islamist rule: Democracy in the Absence of Liberalism

Egypt’s Struggle in the wake of Islamist rule: Democracy in the Absence of Liberalism

October 23rd, 2015

By Sarah De Geest – Research Assistant and guest author Peter Cornett, CSIS[1]

As we speak, the Egyptian state searches for the delicate balance between liberty and security. The incumbent leader, President Fatah Abdul el-Sisi, is attempting to balance military rule and a castrated form of democracy in a country where 48% of the population believes that the law should strictly reflect Sharia.[2] Recently, a number of articles[3] have drawn attention to el-Sisi’s new anti terrorism laws and the Egyptian government’s heavy crackdown on ‘dissent’ and ‘opposition’, and the risks they pose to the future of democracy in Egypt. This article examines the trajectory of post-revolutionary Egypt and attempts to contextualize it according to salient political and strategic considerations. It argues that liberalism provides a useful model that may prevent Egypt from alternating between the two extremes of military autocracy and Islamic democracy.

Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood

Hosni Mubarak, the former President of Egypt – despite his many flaws – went to great lengths to suppress any form of radical Islamism,[4] whether espoused by Salafist ‘democrats’ or by violent jihadist organisations. When the peaceful protests started in 2011, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood seemed well on their way to developing some form of relatively stable democracy. As the world witnessed the Arab Spring protests at Tahrir Square the West welcomed the notion of thousands crying out for democracy and elections. Afterwards, as Mubarak resigned and elections did exactly what one might have expected in Egypt’s experiment with democracy, an overwhelming majority of voters backed the Muslim Brotherhood, who happened to be the biggest target of the Mubarak regime’s repression.

Despite claims that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood represents a supposedly moderate and allegedly progressive vision of ‘Islamic democracy’, the goal of the Brotherhood has always been clear: implement Sharia as a model for organising both civic and private life.[5] Often the group moved beyond advocating for Sharia and adopted even more unpleasant political positions.  It is interesting to note, for instance, that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood explicitly condemned the so-called assassination of ‘Sheikh’ Osama bin Laden.

During their rather brief tenure, President Morsi – Mubarak’s successor – and the Muslim Brotherhood  ensured that the country would fall further into political chaos, economic hardship, and overall disarray. Though the army still backed the government at the time, larger areas in and outside of Cairo soon became unsafe for ordinary citizens to frequent. Salafist thugs were roaming the streets, threatening and carrying out violence at the slightest provocation.[6] Beyond the common occurrences of Salafist vigilantism, several reports claimed that the Morsi government was torturing Christians.[7] A final and extraordinarily heated controversy over the forceful passage and implementation of an openly Islamist constitution sealed the fate of the Morsi regime. It did not take long for the Egyptian people to again take to the streets, asking for the military to oust Morsi and commence a crackdown to purge the Muslim Brotherhood from its bases all over the country.[8] El-Sisi listened to the people of Egypt and obliged with what they wanted.

Egypt’s strategic considerations under el-Sisi

We must note that el-Sisi came to power in a period of distinct unease and chaos within Egypt and in the surrounding region. In neighbouring countries, he witnessed the rise of ISIL, the civil war in Syria and Yemen. Domestically, he observed heightened anxieties among the Egyptian population following the failed rule of Mohamed Morsi. Common to the internal and external conditions affecting Egypt under El-Sisi is the resurgent spectre of radical Islamism and the potential for violent radicalisation amongst disaffected elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist factions.[9]

Since el-Sisi served under both Mubarak and Morsi, he is sure to be acutely aware of the dangers of allowing Islamist ideology to flourish. As a military man, his security policy is likely to be based on strategic considerations – this is exactly why many consider him to be the pragmatic choice to lead Egypt in its current period of vulnerability. But since he is a military man that spent the majority of his career under dictatorial authority, he is also likely to place an emphasis on security, whatever the cost to liberty.

Unfortunately, this view will meet resistance from the United States, which el-Sisi should be well aware of since he studied in the United States through the International Military Education and Training program. While at the US Army War College, he was exposed to US principles on democratic governance and democracy promotion, and wrote extensively on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.[10] As a rebuttal to somewhat optimistic perspectives on the efficacy of democracy promotion strategies, el-Sisi suggested that fledgling democracies in the Middle East will be more religious than the West might expect, and that “legitimately elected parties [should] be given the opportunity to govern.”[11] Further, he was skeptical of rapid democratisation campaigns and clearly understood that there are societal foundations of democracy.

From where el-Sisi is sitting, it is not unreasonable to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood squandered their opportunity and overstepped their boundaries. This view is also shared by a number of American legislators. In an August 2015 interview, Senator James Lankford expressed his belief that “as the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, that was the last election Egypt would have” – el-Sisi was therefore obligated to respond to popular demands for the Brotherhood’s removal.[12] Unsurprisingly though, at the time of Morsi’s removal, American leaders were divided over how they should respond to el-Sisi’s actions. In particular, the Obama Administration and other liberal elements lambasted the new leader’s seizure of power. Military aid from the United States to Egypt was quickly and substantially cut, only to be awkwardly and tentatively reinstated in March of this year, in part due to alarm over the rise of the Islamic State.

Making matters worse, the stance of the Obama Administration has been less than helpful for US-Egyptian relations. Partly due to the moralistic condemnations by the Obama Administration, and incentivised further by America’s withdrawal of military aid, el-Sisi’s government has turned to Russia, which is more interested than ever in solidifying its influence in the region. Met with apparent enthusiasm and a bout of propaganda surrounding their fast-growing strategic alliance, dubbed “friendship bridge 2015”, the Egyptian President visited Moscow on several occasions since his inauguration in 2014.[13] This level of military cooperation is quite unusual for the two nations – the last time the two nations were this cooperative was during the presidency of Abdel Nasser.[14] Frustrated by the lack of interest from his American allies and motivated by the fight against radical Islam, el-Sisi may come to find Putin’s security-focused model to be more beneficial and less patronizing than the American model emphasizing liberal democracy.[15]

Perhaps then it should be no surprise that the el-Sisi regime appears to be taking pointers from Russia in its attack on journalists and press freedoms – what is required instead is discussion of controversial topics such as Islamism as well as liberalism. On the other hand, in a potential departure from political moves made at the beginning of his term, el-Sisi has provided some hope in this regard. If made possible, protecting press freedoms may open up opportunities for Egypt to engage in critical reform without the need for millions to take to the streets in order to be heard. Currently a high level judicial case is ongoing in Egypt concerning Al-Jazeera journalists who have been charged with “spreading false news”. On this matter, el-Sisi has been quite active and has promised to pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists once the judicial process comes to an end.[16] The way this particular case pans out could prove a good barometer to gage how willing the president would be to further strengthen basic civil rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of press.

It is the view of the authors of this article that one failed experiment with democracy leading to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood should not mean the end of all future attempts in Egypt. In order to make appreciable advancements in human rights and sound democratic governance, Egypt must embrace liberalism and abandon the extremes of military authoritarianism and Islamic democracy.

Islamic democracy is not democracy, and absolute security is not liberty

The el-Sisi regime finds itself in a rather difficult position. As international critique on the regime intensifies, an exiled Muslim Brotherhood minister maintains that it is possible for Egypt to be ruled by what he calls ‘moderate Islamism’, perhaps in the previously attempted model of ‘Islamic democracy’.[17] Accepting this separation between democracy and liberalism, the concept of ‘Islamic democracy’ (procedural democracies operating in accordance with Islamic law) privileges procedural aspects of democracy over the more stringent requirements of liberalism.[18] As this literature shows, a state that embraces Islamic democracy can be democratic without being liberal.

In practical terms, the world witnessed the aftermath of an Egyptian Islamic democracy when power-mad Muslim Brotherhood enforcers began to institutionalise their particular form of Islamic ideology within a supposed democratic regime. One of the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood has always been the full implementation of Sharia by means of the instrumentalities of the Egyptian state. In contrast, for liberal democracy to take root in predominantly Islamic countries such as Egypt, these countries must find ways to “join individual rights with majority rule in a stable regime”.[19] This cannot be done under Sharia.

We concur with the legal doctrine of the European Court of Human Rights (ECFR) concerning the political implementation of Sharia. In 2003 the Court upheld the ban on the Turkish ‘Welfare Party – Refah Partisi’, arguing that the ban was both proportional and relevant to protect democratic society. The Court maintained that the “institution of Sharia law and a theocratic regime, were incompatible with the requirements of a democratic society”. Moreover the court held that Islamic law (Sharia) is a system of law that is marked in contrast with the values embodied in the European Convention of Human Rights.[20] With this understanding, it is possible to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood can embrace the procedures of democracy, but not liberalism itself. And while it may be possible for Sharia to be adapted to democratic systems of government (as argued by ‘Islamic democracy’ advocates), Sharia is in itself illiberal and therefore fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy.

This perspective has an immediate bearing on the prospects for democracy in Egypt and the Middle East as a whole. First, it provides pragmatic grounds for reasonably separating two related ideas – democracy and liberalism – and shows that neither perspective necessarily requires the other. Second, it also helps to explain how it is possible for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to accept the trappings of democracy (i.e., elections and a modicum of free speech) while rejecting liberalism.

Ironically, as much as he rejects the radical Islamist perspective, el-Sisi has taken a similar approach. His security legislation, while strategically warranted, infringes heavily upon the liberties ordinary Egyptians. Civil society is eroded while the military autocracy is further entrenched. Hope for an independent legislative body has been crushed, and most stakeholders in the Egyptian state are resorting to a posture of deference to the new strongman. It is a feeble and superficial gesture that el-Sisi would replace his military uniform with a meticulously tailored suit – a military leader that installs himself upon his own authority into a position of power does not a civilian leader make. Put simply, whether or not the new regime can be considered in any way democratic, it is certainly not liberal.

To embrace the trappings of democracy while forgoing liberal values is an approach that both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood have adopted in Egypt, and to disastrous results. Both the army and the Brotherhood have resorted to illiberal means of silencing their opposition. Both parties are (to a different degree and for different reasons) guilty of betraying the spirit of the Arab Spring as well as its popular mandate. Illiberal policies – no matter how enthusiastically farcically ‘democratic’ institutions perpetuate them – have not served Egypt well in the past and they will not do so in the future.

In sum, three significant regional actors have demonstrably rejected liberal democracy. First, the Muslim Brotherhood implemented an uncompromising vision of ‘Islamic democracy’ in Egypt that collapsed under the weight of its own theocratic bullying. Second, the army has silenced opposition and peaceful dissent en masse and by force, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. And finally, disaffected elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with ISIL supporters and other radicalised Islamists, are rejecting both liberalism and democracy – for example, in an interview with Spiegel Online, one ISIL jihadist put it quite succinctly: “democracy is for infidels”. Out of these groups, only the Egyptian army carries the potential of embracing liberal democracy, since both the Muslim Brotherhood and radicalized Islamist elements support the full implementation of Sharia, which is categorically incompatible with the precepts of liberalism.

We are aware that there is no small irony here – el-Sisi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is clearly not a democratic organization, nor is it a liberal one. Ideally, as a military organization, it ought to be beholden to civilian leadership and therefore the political preferences of its leaders should have no impact on state governance. However, due to the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood nearly strangling Egyptian liberalism in its crib, el-Sisi and the armed forces now control the Egyptian state. Because of this, the policy preferences of el-Sisi in particular will have a very real impact on the direction of civil society in Egypt.

A new narrative: liberal democracy, the way forward for Egypt

The moderate secularism of a liberal democratic state offers a more permanent and peaceful solution that could replace the extremes of military autocracy and Islamic theocracy. Admittedly it is not the policy preference of proponents of Sharia and Islamic theocracy, but for a liberal democracy to function, and in order to have a state that respects the inalienable rights of minorities such as women and gays, such extreme views must not be given credence. To some extent this view supports the crackdown against radical Islam that el-Sisi has been pursuing, since counter radicalization and counterterrorism are legitimate state pursuits, but it also recognizes that there are moral limits to the exercise of state power. Balancing the interests of stakeholders in an Egyptian democracy will require liberalism in order to ensure the protection of minorities and the liberal political processes.

Implementing some degree of liberal democracy in Egypt will require a pragmatic approach. Clearly the presence of a military leader undermines the short-term success of liberalism, however it simultaneously offers some opportunities – opportunities to effect lasting change that will enable Egypt to move beyond the ceaseless battle between the forces of Islamism and military autocracy. Since he holds a position of unprecedented authority and possesses the approval of the vast majority of the Egyptian people,[21] el-Sisi is well positioned to make the case for reform. Assuming his goals are not merely focused on autocratic regime survival – ensuring his own perpetual rule – el-Sisi should spend some of his vast political capital to liberalize Egyptian political culture.

Specifically, we propose a three-pronged approach that will capitalize on el-Sisi’s popularity to counter domestic radicalism and to ensure the success of liberalism in Egypt:

  1. To begin, el-Sisi should launch a well-funded strategic communications campaign that unequivocally espouses the virtues liberal democracy. This campaign would emphasize notions of free speech, religious tolerance, and secular governance,[22] and would include national curriculum updates to combat youth radicalization and to ensure liberal socialization and early age exposure to liberal philosophical principles.
  2. In support of this move towards liberalism, el-Sisi should initiate cooperative counterterrorism efforts with liberal democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel, asking them for military aid in combating the ongoing insurgency in the Sinai. This effort will increase cooperation and trust among the partners and will demonstrate to the Egyptian people that liberal democracies will forcibly oppose violently radical Islamist actors.
  3. Likely due in part to their long history of living under authoritarian rule, the Egyptian people view China and Russia as the friendliest non-Arab nations, and the United States and Israel as the two most hostile nations.[23] It is in the interests of both Egypt and the West to correct this perspective. This may be achieved by a second strategic communications campaign – the final portion of our approach – that aims to improve popular support for closer relations with liberal democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel.

A move towards liberalism will have positive implications for Egypt’s foreign policy. First, it would alleviate insecurity resulting from American political pressure and would enable Egypt to safely reject Russian patronage in favour of the United States, which provides significant military aid and support. Second, Egypt’s influence in the Arab world is and has always been significant, and as a fledgling liberal democracy, Egypt would provide a positive liberalization model for other regional powers that are predominantly theocratic and autocratic. Finally, in embracing liberal international norms, Egypt would be hedging against foreign policy failures by ensuring better relations with great powers in North America and Europe that would be strategically valuable in the event of a conflict with an illiberal state or Islamist insurgency.

Proponents of liberalism in predominantly Islamic countries understand that it is necessary to have organisations and groups that call for liberal democracy as a counterbalance to those that demand an Islamic system of government. Sadly, Western liberals often chafe at calls to ensure the success of liberalism abroad. It is a sad truth, unfortunately, that many Western liberals are satisfied with marginally effective democratic institutions and weak protections for minority parties. Others are even content with respecting various forms of theocracy and military autocracy as cultural institutions that are unique to Islamic society. In response to this, Maajid Nawaz speaks justly of ‘neo-orientalism’, criticising those who insist on interpreting liberalism as “a Western construct ill-fitting to non-Western cultures”.[24] If Egypt is going to succeed at liberalizing its political system, it will require the courageously vocal support of Western liberals. Egyptian liberals, who have been dying for the cause for many years, would certainly appreciate the assistance.

It would be a hollow victory indeed if the West abandons the support of liberalism in Egypt in order to reinforce the sad illusion of democracy. Worthwhile change is gradual, but it must also be substantial.

[1] Peter is non-resident SPF Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He holds an MSc in International Relations from London School of Economics and an MA in War Studies from Kings College London

[2]Democratic values in Egypt, Pew, 2014, http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/22/chapter-3-democratic-values-in-egypt/.

[3] President Sisi’s very bad year, 6 June 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/7/president-sisis-very-bad-year.html,

[4] A theocratic fascist ideology. Definition by Maajid Nawaz. He argues a theocratic caliphate (state) can never be a solution in today’s complex world.

[5] In Egypt, Seeing the Muslim Brotherhood for what it really is, 2 March 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stanley-weiss/in-egypt-seeing-the-musli_b_6786356.html.

[6] http://www.thenation.com/article/whats-behind-us-embassy-protests-egypt/ and http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/161637#.VhwpSbx4ZSU and http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/9941

[7] Egypt Christians Allege Torture under Morsi Regime, 8 August 2013, http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2013/August/Egypt-Christians-Allege-Torture-Under-Morsi-Regime/ and http://freebeacon.com/national-security/egypts-christians-in-the-shadow-of-the-muslim-brotherhood/

[8] Egypt under El-Sisi, his toughest challenge is his most challenging opportunity, August 2014, http://www.meforum.org/4786/sisi-greatest-challenge.

[9] See for example: Militant cells are carrying out  more brazen attacks across Egypt, 3 September 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/militant-cells-are-carrying-out-more-brazen-attacks-across-egypt/2015/09/02/0706408e-4a9d-11e5-9f53-d1e3ddfd0cda_story.html;  Egypt’s disaffected youths radicalised out of despair, 10 August 2015, http://www.omaha.com/eedition/sunrise/articles/egypt-s-disaffected-youths-radicalized-out-of-despair/article_fd0cd3f5-1195-5f68-94a1-5103f476550e.html ; Sinai attacks show IS influence growing, 2 July 2015, http://www.dw.com/en/sinai-attacks-show-is-influence-growing/a-18557611.

[10] Insight: In small american town, a window into Egyptian general’s past, 23 August 2013,  http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/23/us-usa-egypt-sisi-insight-idUSBRE97M01920130823.

[11] Insight: In small american town, a window into Egyptian general’s past, 23 August 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/23/us-usa-egypt-sisi-insight-idUSBRE97M01920130823.

[12] Egypt’s Christians in the shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood, 11 August 2015, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/egypts-christians-in-the-shadow-of-the-muslim-brotherhood/.

[13] Nothing to divide Egypt and Russia, 26 August 2015, https://www.rt.com/op-edge/313470-egypt-russia-meeting-ties/.

[14] President Nasser first tried a non-alignment approach vis-a-vis the US and the USSR but after the West started denying Egypt economic and military support, he started to favour the Soviet Union. In 1964 PM Krushchev promises Nasser the Soviet Union’s highest honour: Hero of the Soviet Union. For more details on the Nasser years see https://prezi.com/dz1jsf0-yqto/soviet-union-and-nasser/.

[15] Recent article on Putin’s strategic considerations in Middle East: Putin’s Model of Success, 11 October 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/putins-model-of-success/2015/10/11/4cb3a592-6dcd-11e5-aa5b-f78a98956699_story.html?postshare=9701444671084164.

[16] Al-Sisi promises pardon of Al Jazeera journalists, 28 February 2015, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/02/28/al-sisi-promises-pardon-of-conditionally-released-al-jazeera-journalists/.

[17] Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt’s military regime can be replaced with moderate Islamic rule, 5 May 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/amr-darrag-ex-muslim-brotherhood-minister-in-exile-still-believes-egypts-military-regime-can-be-10227129.html.

[18] For more in-depth analysis see L. Ali Khan, Theory of Universal Democracy, 2003,  Springer, 288p.

[19] What History says about the prospects of democracy, 2 June 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/06/02/what-history-says-about-the-prospects-for-islamic-democracy/

[20] ECHR Annual Report 2003,  http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Annual_report_2003_ENG.pdf&date=2013-09-14.

[21] Infographic: Sisi’s Approval Ratings over the past year, 8 June 2015, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/egyptsource/infographic-sisi-s-approval-ratings-over-the-past-year; Poll conducted by Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera) on perfections of Egyptians friendly and hostile countries, http://www.baseera.com.eg/pdf_poll_file_en/President%20approval-%201%20year%20-%20En.pdf.

[22] Instead of using the language of “secularism” or “secular government” in positive terms, which is deeply unpopular in the Islamic world, we suggest an alternative narrative that negatively associates theocratic government with “corruption”

[23]Poll conducted by Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera) on perceptions of Egyptians regarding friendly and hostile countries, http://www.baseera.com.eg/pdf_poll_file_en/Countries%20Press%20-%20En.pdf.

[24] Liberal democrats reveal the great fissure in realism, March 2013, http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/03/liberal-democrats-reveal-the-great-fissure-in-liberalism/.


About Sarah De Geest

Sarah De Geest is a Research Assistant in the Global Governance division. She holds two Masters of law with distinction from KULeuven and the School of Oriental and African Studies.