A long way from Tahrir to democracy

On the 25th January 2011 a popular uprising began on the Tahrir square in downtown Cairo. This has by many been viewed as the hopeful beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Women’s rights activists, students, youth, democracy and human rights activists all stood together in their fight against an autocratic regime and their fight for democracy. After Hosni Mubarak, the country’s authoritarian president and former army general, was forced from power, Egypt has found itself in a political and democratic turmoil.

Conservative brothers

In June 2012 the first democratic elections were held in Egypt. Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as the country’s first civilian president. This would have been an unthinkable outcome under Mubarak’s regime.

Morsi was not, however, a unifying figure. He led the country in an ever more Islamic direction and. His election as president was for many supporters of democracy a setback for the revolution. In the summer of 2013 he was removed from power by the democracy movement aided by the army. it si almost an absurdity that Morsi, who was democratically elected, was deposed by the very forces who called for democracy and at the same time supporting what many have called a military coup.

New general

In the wake of Morsi’s removal a turbulent period followed. An interim government was sworn in, and paved the way for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, also he a former general, to become the country’s next president. The public’s perception of Sisi is also polarizing in the Egyptian political landscape. His supporters view him as a “national hero” who can prevent political turmoil and improve the security situation in the country, while his opponents holds him accountable for the many human rights abuses that have taken place since the ousting of Morsi.

Sisi has expressed a desire to lead the country in a more democratic direction. If this will ultimately happen remains to be seen.

New constitution

Egypt has made some positive democratic progress in the last year. In 2014 the new constitution was adopted, and marks a significant step in the right direction compared to the constitution that was adopted under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, women have a constitutional right to protection from all forms of violence and the constitution stated that women are equal to men under the law. Both freedom of expression and freedom of religion are constitutionally entrenched, as is a political system based on political and partisan pluralism.

New and greater concerns

Despite these positive developments there are still a number of great concerns regarding the democratic process in Egypt. In 2014 the media reported on mass arrests and hundreds of death sentences handed out to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been criminalized and under the new constitution does not allow for any religious political parties. Freedom of expression is constantly restricted for the sake of security, and there is a limitation on the freedom of assembly. Religious minorities are not given constitutional protection, as the constitution only recognizes the three monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

New election

A new parliamentary election is planned for March and April this year. According to the new Parliamentary law from 2014, 80 percent of the seats are designated to individual candidates whereas 20 percent are accorded to people elected through a majority system. This means that the party that gets the majority of votes in one district will take all the seats in this particular district. Such a system can undermine the multiparty system as it favors the majority without ensuring appropriate representation of all parties and political factions. It will also make it more difficult for political blocs capable of getting a majority of seats in the new Parliament

The new parliamentary system guarantees seats to a few selected categories of people, namely Copts, farmers and workers, youth, people with disabilities and expatriate Egyptians.

New voices

The Egyptian Feminist Union, which is led by Hoda Badran, fought for introducing quotas for female Members of Parliament, however, without success. Women have nonetheless been allocated 56 seats under the new law, which also include seats occupied by women in the above-mentioned categories. This is an improvement from the 2 percent female parliamentary representation under Morsi, however there is still a long way to go to secure full gender equality in Egyptian politics.

New observations

Many democrats in Egypt are today so-called “conditional optimists”. No one knows with certainty what intentions Sisi has. It is in other words important that the outside world pays close attention to the developments, and show Egypt that we do, not least with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Egyptian authorities must feel the pressure for democratization, and know that the world keeps a close watch on them.

Old challenges all over again

The political development in Egypt has taken turbulent turns. There is a long way from the cries for democracy one could hear on the Tahrir square in 2011 to what is happening in the country today. It is paradoxical that 18 people were killed by police forces on the four year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, most of them peaceful demonstrators. One of them, a 32-year old human rights lawyer, was shot while she was holding flowers in her hands.


A shorter version of this post was published in Vårt Land on Saturday 31st January.

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