Egypt: from Arab Spring to Arab Winter

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WEB-Egypt Protest-Joseph Hill-Flickr

The pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring initially brought a huge wave of optimism to Egypt by bringing down the three-decade old regime of Hosni Mubarak. However, in the period of a little over two years, such hard-fought gains are no longer the reality in Egypt. From the hastily written constitution to the successful military coup conducted just this month, Egypt is on its way back to what its citizens desperately wished to leave behind: autocracy.

The fair and free elections held in 2012 saw the Muslim Brotherhood win power with the election of its presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi, and a plurality in the Parliament. While this provided hope that democracy would continue to progress in Egypt, such hopes faded not long after. Rather than attempting to strengthen the nation’s infant democracy, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood hastily drafted a constitution and called for a popular referendum without sufficient consultation with other sectors of society.

While it was passed in a free and fair plebiscite, the process failed to live up to expectations that it would be inclusive and protective of human rights. Rather than guaranteeing the freedom of religious belief to anyone regardless of their background, the newly drafted and adopted Constitution limited this fundamental right solely to adherents of Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

As a result, Egyptians belonging to the long persecuted Bahá’í faith were clearly excluded from constitutional protection. More importantly, this signifies the continued widespread persecution of unrecognized religious minorities, which was the status quo under Mubarak.

The right of self-expression was also placed in huge doubt under this newly adopted Constitution. Although Article 45 does ensure this right for Egyptians, it also signifies that it must be exercised within reasonable bounds by prohibiting individuals from insults. However, as the language contained is overly broad, there is cause for concern; the standard for defining what is “insulting” seems completely arbitrary.

Subsequently, there have been attempts to criticize Morsi’s criminal cases. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, defendants charged with “defamation,” “insulting the judiciary,” or “insulting President Morsi” have become quite frequent. Prominent comedians have also been included as targets. These prevailing trends under Morsi seem to be a throwback to the non-existent right of free speech under Mubarak.

On July 3, 2013, the military staged a coup after giving Morsi 48 hours to resolve ongoing civil unrest. While the coup portrayed itself as the savior of the country and representative of the peoples’ will, the reality is that the military — with its secular outlook and its privileges — aimed to seize political power and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood. More importantly, it meant the full resumption of its active political role as was the case under the rule of Mubarak, who himself was a high-ranking officer.

Furthermore, the hope of having a civilian-led government with an apolitical military seemed to be dashed in one day. While elections have been pledged, the reality seems to be inching back towards autocratic rule.

Shortly after the coup, many senior Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsi’s political allies were detained by the military. This is a disturbing reminder of the unmerited arrests of political opponents by Mubarak under his rule. Not only have Muslim Brotherhood members been subject to legal troubles, but they have also been subject to deadly violence by the army.

These developments all indicate a recurring pattern with a common characteristic; since Mubarak’s departure, setbacks for democracy have continued under Morsi and the Egyptian military. As a result, many dreaded features of Mubarak’s rule have returned in this post-Mubarak era. Regrettably, the prospects of a thriving Egyptian democracy have continued to dim for the near future.