It was the poster child for the Arab Spring. Egypt looked in 2011 like the model for a revitalized Middle East, as young demonstrators jamming a Cairo square swept away half a century of military dictatorship. The euphoria soon faded. Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president was removed by the army in his first year, accused of hoarding power and failing to revive the economy. Now stability and jobs are the biggest concerns. With another military strongman in power after a May election, the country’s revolution has come full circle. Whether it was a vote for democracy is an open question.
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former army chief who pushed President Muhamed Mursi from office in July, won a landslide victory with 97 percent of the vote. The two-day poll was planned for May 26-27, but then extended for a third day as more voters stayed home. Turnout fell to 47 percent as Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the target of a bloody crackdown on Islamists since he was overthrown, boycotted the election and described it as a sham. The Brotherhood, winner of every previous regional and national election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was branded as terrorist and banned. More than 1,000 Brotherhood members and supporters have died in clashes and rallies, and thousands more were put on trial. Hundreds of them were sentenced to death, though most punishments were later commuted to life imprisonment. Activists and journalists have been detained. While the violence hobbled efforts to revive an economy suffering from its worst slowdown in two decades, El-Sisi can count on $15 billion in aid pledged by Persian Gulf countries. The military kept out of clashes between police and demonstrators during the Arab Spring uprising and remains popular. More than half of all Egyptians say having a stable government is more important than having a full democracy, according to a May 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center. That’s up from a third in 2011.
Military leaders have shaped Egypt’s history for more than 3,000 years. The army commander Horemheb quelled strife after the child-pharaoh Tutankhamen died in 1322 BC with no successor; a military junta then ruled for 13 generations. Slave soldiers known as Mamluks arrived in the early 1250s and created political, social and economic networks over a 500-year rule. Cairo, located along a major trade route between the East and West, became what 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun called “the center of the universe and the garden of the world.” After stagnating under British rule, General Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to re-establish Egypt’s pre-eminent position, nationalizing the Suez Canal and leading Arabs in wars against Israel. As Egypt’s ruling general in 1978, Anwar Sadat signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty. The regime survived an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, though it became increasingly ossified and wealth failed to trickle down and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, and half its 85 million people are under the age of 25. The military still controls large segments of the economy — with commercial interests from food manufacturing to road building and real estate.
El-Sisi’s supporters say he rescued Egypt from Islamists trying to take over state institutions. Critics say he has simply returned it to repressive rule. By tightening its grip on power and stifling dissent, the military is undermining Egypt’s fragile democratic gains, his opponents say. While many allies have embraced the army’s narrative that the actions were needed to provide stability — including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel and Russia — some are more conflicted. The U.S. suspended some of its $1.5 billion in annual assistance in October in an effort to prod the country toward democracy, then resumed delivery of Apache attack helicopters and half of its military support in April. Since Egypt has led the region’s economic and cultural development since the pharaohs, its course is likely to define history’s judgment of the Arab Spring.
The Reference Shelf
- “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,”” a 2010 book by Toby Wilkinson.
- A March 2014 Carnegie Endowment Organization report by Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”
- Congressional Research Service report from January 2014 on Egypt’s relations with the U.S.