Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Democrats?

by Steven A. Cook
January 16, 2013

Judge El-Gheriany, chairman of the constituent assembly gives Egyptian President Morsi, the final draft of Egyptian constitution in Cairo (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


It may seem non-controversial these days to suggest that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) are not exactly forces for democratic change.  Much of Washington, which only last spring feted an FJP delegation carrying the message that all would be well, has fallen into an Egypt funk.  No one is longing for Hosni Mubarak, but the hope for a democratic transition on the Nile has dissipated.  Indeed, with a few exceptions, there are few in the policy or traditional academic communities who cling to the once-conventional wisdom that the Brotherhood could be a force for more open politics. The record is clear and as a result, the conversation has shifted to hoping that Egypt can stay afloat economically.  Still, not everyone shares the doom and gloom about the Brothers.  When I recently suggested on Twitter that President Mohammed Morsi, the FJP, and the Brothers had not been exactly faithful to the revolutionary promise of a more open political system and had used some of the same tricks as the Mubarak regime, I received a fair amount of pushback from some quarters.  One of my tweeps challenged me to prove it, chastising me for blindly accepting the narrative of Egyptian liberals and revolutionaries.

Let me start by saying that there are some basic institutions and principles that all democratic polities share in common.  To be sure, democracies vary in important ways—parliamentary democracies and presidential democracies and differing electoral systems to name a few obvious divergences—but they nevertheless share some common features.  Think of it this way: there are vast differences between a Subaru Forrester and a Maserati Quattroporte, but they are both cars.  They have four tires, a steering wheel, brakes, and they take people from point A to point B (with a stop at Starbucks in between).  Like a $25,000 Subaru and a $130,000 Maserati, democratic polities may function differently, but they have the same basic equipment— for example, regularly scheduled elections in which the outcome is neither pre-determined nor can it be altered ex post, equal application of the law, checks and balances on the branches of government, and protection of minorities.  This leads me back to Egypt.  Based on everything I have seen and read, thus far the Brothers have continued to use the language of democratic change, but they have dealt with internal challenges through a variety of authoritarian means.  To be sure, it is still early in Egypt’s transition (See Marc Lynch’s recent post on the “terrible two’s”), but there is reason to be concerned that the Brotherhood/FJP/Morsi are setting the trajectory of Egyptian politics on a non-democratic course.  Don’t take my word for it, however.  Here is an illustrative inventory of the Brotherhood’s approach to governance since President Morsi took the oath of office in June 2012:

1.       President Morsi’s November 22nd decree insulated both the president and the Constituent Assembly, which was at the time preparing the penultimate draft of the new constitution, from judicial review.  It is true as the Brotherhood’s partisans suggest that the Egyptian judiciary is packed with justices whom Hosni Mubarak appointed, but it remains hard to justify an inherently anti-democratic act by proclaiming you are doing it in the name of democracy.  The decree has since been modified (under significant public pressure) or overtaken, but the whole episode suggests that the Brothers have not internalized their discourse about reform and democracy.

2.       Consistent violations of freedom of expression and media freedom.  The list here is rather extensive, but suffice it to say that an Egyptian could face imprisonment for insulting the president in January 2010 and January 2013.  Morsi’s team has gone after everyone from Bassem Youssef, a popular TV personality whose stock and trade is satire, to lesser-known journalists, editors, and cartoonists.  The attacks on freedom of expression and freedom of the press are not as pervasive or brazen as in Turkey these days, but it is clear that the Brothers want to limit what Egyptians say about what they think in public fora.  It is going to be hard—Mubarak was never able to shut down the press he didn’t like—but again the effort to circumscribe the space for public debate reveals a worldview that is inconsistent with a democratic system.

3.       Morsi and the Brotherhood clearly have issues with the judiciary (see point #1).  That is not all that surprising given the Brothers’ long years of repression under the old regime often with the willing cooperation of many judges.  Yet even if there were a fair number of judges who were all too willing to do the bidding of the regime’s leaders, there were many who sought under adverse conditions to maintain their independence.  In the Brotherhood’s effort to ensure against the revenge of felool judges, they also seem willing to undermine the independence of the judiciary.  Just as during the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak eras, under the new constitution the Minister of Justice, “is granted specific powers regarding appointment, disciplining, retirement and secondment,” of judges, which, according to the International Commission of Jurists, will compromise the independence of the judiciary.

4.       Civilians will continue to be subject to military justice in the new Egypt.

If much of this sounds familiar to even the casual observer of Egyptian politics, that is because it is.  None of these measures differs substantively from the Mubarak era and President Morsi seems as inclined as his predecessors to use them.  The above list represents just a few illustrative examples. Consequently, other than a rhetorical commitment to building a democratic Egypt, how one can make the claim that the Brothers are actually doing it?

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by George

    As a secular I couldn’t agree more on what you said, but then again as a secular I would say its impossible for democracy to exist without secularization.Even before the brotherhood have attained rule one could always deduce from their literature(Sayed Kotb, Hassan el Banna) that they are on a collision course with democracy from day one, take for example the importance of tourism to Egypt economics, their Dogma intervenes once again denying them the proper free reason they need to fully be aware that what will go in internally(civil law) will affect the nations profile in tourism, yet laws that used to exist abolishing the inhumane marriage of little girls will cease after the constitutional text is no longer present like it used to before.The question is to you sir, do you think the army would intervene, to once again throw the fate of Egypt more deeper in the religious/military loop of rule,or will Egypt be dismantled by foreign powers?, I believe no other solution, and more evidently the difficult position the brotherhood has to maintain their rule considering the economy and their Misleading Dogma I would assume.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Using your analogy, I would argue that we should not only differentiate between different types of cars but also different conditions of cars. A 2013 Accord and a 1995 Accord are not only both cars but also both Accords. Both have four tires, a steering wheel, brakes, and they take people from point A to point B. However, it will not be right to think that as both are Accords their performance should be similar and if the performance is different then one of them is not an Accord.

    Egyptian democracy is new and so it is not right to compare it with advanced democracies. It will take time to grow. Not even UK or US or more recent East European democracies were up and running in a year. Therefore, we should give Egyptian democracy time.

    Is the current Egyptian government doing a good job? No. There should be more media freedom and civil rights. So, does this allow us to say that Egypt under Morsi and Egypt under Mubarak are similar? Absolutely NO. This is an elected government and whatever its faults, it draws its power from the people.

    The issue of judicial independence is important but we should remember that it was this “independent” judiciary which tried to scuttle the whole nascent democratic experiment by declaring the duly elected legislature unconstitutional even before it started working.

    A democratic Egypt will not be built in a day. Let us see what the democratic government has achieved so far. There is a democratic/ popularly approved constitution. The power is exercised by the elected representatives of the people. Undemocratic forces, like the Egyptian military, have been tamed in a very short amount of time. In other countries, like Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria etc., militaries continue to hold power decades after democratization. Egypt’s government has been particularly successful in this case.

    One can argue that all these achievements increase power of the Brotherhood but a constitution actually limits a government’s powers. Constitutions are particularly restrictive for political parties which control both legislature and executive branches of government. Brotherhood could have continued without a constitution as it had both the control of executive and legislature but it didn’t. Yes, it would have been better if more consultations were done with opposition but in the end, it is constitution with fundamental rights, approved by majority of Egyptian people. We may like some other clauses/controls but who should decide what should be in the Egyptian constitution?

  • Posted by Rawya

    Many people abroad assess Egypt’s current president and situation as an infant democracy trying to flourish always referring ‘an elected president’. However, Egyptians may have queued up to elect a president for the first time in their lives, but none of the parties were penalized or made accountable for all the cheating that went on. I for one was there as a volunteer at many polling stations, and I can tell you that ‘the majority’ people refer to are illiterate, paid to enter the elections. You can’t possibly speak in the voice of the 25 million who still pound the streets in opposition when 60% didn’t bother to vote or abstained in the last referendum. If the MB were so popular they wouldn’t need to pay bus loads of people for their marches, they wouldn’t need to pay 200LE a month for women to cover their faces, they wouldn’t need to pay men up to 150LE per vote and women 80LE, they wouldn’t need to pre print polling cards and fill up polling boxes before the official voting hours, they wouldn’t need to terrorize a minority( Christians- 12 million) from leaving their homes to vote. If Dr Morsi was the chosen president through a democratic system and was wanted by the majority, he wouldve won first round by at least 80%, his referendum would’ve been won by 80%. Beware what you define as ‘democratic’. Many International countries speak of democracy but don’t live democratically and by far Dr Morsi isn’t prioritizing Egypt and the Egyptian people, he’s a car in first gear trying to win a race for the ‘brotherhood’ burning out the engine before getting to second gear which is the power ‘the Egyptian’ public and yes as an Egyptian, it is a déjà vu.

  • Posted by Fred

    Good article although you missed the flagrant government violations for religious freedom whether its jailing Facebook “blasphemers” (always Coptic Christian) to turning a blind eye to mob violence against Copts and Coptic churches and Muslim Brotherhood anti-Coptic incitement to flatly and publicly denying any citizenship rights to Egyptians adhering to the Bahaii faith.

  • Posted by Giorgio Musso

    Dear Raja, I agree on the point that we need to give time to Egypt’s nascent democracy, and that today’s Egypt is not equal to Mubarak’s. But that’s because the people won’t allow again an authoritarian regime, not because the Muslim Brotherhood is consolidating democracy. I am one of those who believe that “demo-Islam” may be a realistic prospect, the same way as demo-Christian parties have been a feature of European politics for a long time.
    However, the way the MB are dealiing with the resistance they meet in the state apparatus is undermining their democratic credentials.
    A democratic transition is a very fragile process, and by no means it is a one-way street. It can easily be hijacked. This is the reason why, besides being patient, we also have to be vigilant and honest.
    Take the Constitution: it has been approved by 64% of the voters, who turned out to be 33% of those having the right to vote. This means that Egypt, a country with a population of 80 million, now has a constitution approved by less than 10 million of its citizens. You shall agree that this is a substantial breach of democracy, though fair from a procedural point of view. The constitution lacks popular legitimacy, and this is due to the hurried way in which it was approved.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Dear Giorgio, I agree with you that Egyptians have to remain vigilant. I, however, would disagree on two points.

    First, we should not equate MB with democratic Islam as Islam is a majority religion in 50 states with hundreds of Islamic parties. MB, though important, is only one of them.

    Secondly, democratic majorities are always based on those who voted unless specified otherwise. The way you looked at the voting, President Obama lacks popular legitimacy as he has been elected by less than 30% of total voters. More than 2/3rd of the electorate decided not to vote for him.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required