How Has Egypt Changed After the Arab Spring?
On Halloween night, a Russian plane leaving the Egyptian town of Sharm al-Sheikh crashed mysteriously in the Sinai Peninsula. While the conversation quickly shifted to whether this was a result of a bomb or not, it is just one more in a series of events that depict the chaos on-going within Egypt. The start of this chaos coincided with the Arab Spring that upended a decades-old dictator only a few years ago.
Read on to see the political evolution in Egypt, beginning with the Arab Spring, through its messy post-revolution transition, to the current government under military leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. How have these events shaped the country, and what role do countries like the United States and groups like ISIS play in the shaping of Egypt’s recent political turmoil?
The Arab Spring
Fresh on the heels of widespread protests in Tunisia, a similar uprising emerged in Egypt over the rule of Hosni Mubarak, which was characterized by oppression and poverty. After the protests grew, President Mubarak eventually offered to step down at the end of his term and appoint a vice president for the first time in his reign. However, these changes did little to placate Egyptians who continued the protests in Tahrir Square. After continued dissent and the government’s failed attempts to violently end the protest, Mubarak ultimately resigned, leaving power in the hands of the military. The following video provides a good insight into the Arab Spring and aftermath in Egypt:
Egypt’s longtime ruler came to power during a time of chaos as the vice president succeeding Anwar Sadat, who was killed by Islamic extremists during a military parade. Upon ascending to the presidency, a role he would maintain for the next thirty years, Mubarak declared a state of emergency which was in effect until he stepped down in 2011. While Mubarak at points seemed untouchable, eventually even his time would come. After finally ceding power, the longtime ruler was also arrested and subsequently put on trial. Mubarak was charged with embezzlement, corruption, and complicity in the killing of protesters.
In 2012, he was convicted for being complicit in killing protesters and was sentenced to life in prison. He was later granted a retrial in 2013 and was acquitted in 2014. Then, he was convicted of the other two charges as well, granted a retrial for these in 2013, acquitted of corruption in 2014 but found guilty of embezzlement. Mubarak’s final retrial will take place in January 2016.
Following Mubarak’s forced resignation, power passed to a military consortium known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This group vowed to draft a new constitution and eventually cede power to a democratically elected government. However, during the transition period, the military cracked down on protests and dissolved the previous government. The council also began gradually taking on greater powers, including the ability to pass new laws and regulate the budget. Concurrent to the presidential election, the council dissolved the recently elected parliament, which at the time was dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt eventually elected Mohamed Morsi president, setting up a power struggle between the elected government and the military.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood originated in 1928, combining political activism with charitable work based on Islamic principles. The brotherhood was initially banned in Egypt after trying to overthrow the government, but in the 1970s it renounced the use of violence. Instead, it sought to provide social services for Egyptians, which built up public trust and support. The group became so influential that President Mubarak banned the Brotherhood from competing in elections. However, after he left power, the Brotherhood won majorities in both Egypt’s lower and upper houses and eventually the presidency.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidency in 2012 to become the first democratically elected president in Egypt. Morsi campaigned on his desire to rule on behalf of all Egyptians, and not just Islamists who favor the Muslim brotherhood, but after his election much of the criticism claimed that he did just that. Critics argued that after his election Morsi consolidated power for himself and the Muslim Brotherhood and did little to spur economic growth. But Morsi argued that he had to take dramatic action in light of Egypt’s recent turbulence. Egyptians quickly became dissatisfied with Morsi’s rule and protests emerged. The dissenters intensified their efforts and eventually clashed with the government. After a period of large-scale uprisings, the military stepped in and ousted Morsi from power. His presidency lasted for just over a year.
After being forced out of office, Morsi was charged with a number of crimes, ranging from espionage to terrorism. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. After several legal battles, the court reaffirmed the sentence in June.
Abdul Fattah al-Sisi
Abdul Fattah al-Sisi came to power in the elections following Morsi’s ouster, in which he ran virtually unopposed. Upon al-Sisi’s election, Egyptians thought they were getting a strong nationalist leader who would rid the country of the Brotherhood’s radical Islamism and reinvigorate the economy. Instead, al-Sisi has unleashed a crackdown on dissent, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Under al-Sisi’s presidency, the economy continued to falter, only staying above water thanks to support from nations like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United States. Assessments of his presidency cite human rights violations and a crackdown on free expression and dissent.
The video below shows life in Egypt under al-Sisi:
The United States
Egypt has long been an important country to the United States because of its large population and the presence of the Suez Canal, one of the major avenues for world trade. The importance of this relationship can be quantified by the $76 billion in aid given to Egypt since 1948, including $1.3 billion annually for Egypt’s military.
Recently, however, this relationship has taken a different direction. In light of the forced removal of Mohamed Morsi’s government in 2013, the United States has been reevaluating its relationship with Egypt. The United States began withholding certain military equipment in 2013 to express dissatisfaction with the political trend in Egypt–although military cooperation continued.
As the Congressional Research Service notes, Egypt later signed arms deals with France and Russia and after terrorist attacks in the region earlier this year, the United States resumed its shipments. However, this aid is subject to continued evaluation and beginning in 2018 it will be directed for certain missions instead of being given as a blank check to the military. Egypt’s governing issues and changing U.S. policy priorities, like a nuclear deal with Iran, have reduced Egypt’s long-standing importance as an American ally.
The accompanying video gives a good look at Egypt-U.S. relations:
Like other parts of the Arab world, Egypt has become a home for Islamic extremists loyal to the Islamic State. In Egypt, the group is based out of the Sinai, which has been loosely governed since it was returned to Egypt from Israel in 1979. This group has been responsible for a number of attacks and has claimed responsibility for the recent plane bombing that killed 224 people. Despite several military offensives, Egypt has been unable to rid itself of the terrorist group.
In addition to ISIS affiliates, other actors are also making a play in Egypt. Russia reached a preliminary agreement to provide Egypt with $3.5 billion in arms, a deal seen as filling the gap left by the United States. France also signed a major arms deal with Egypt that is valued at nearly $6 billion. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also competing for Egypt’s favor in their on-going proxy war. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of Egypt’s largest supporters helping keep the al-Sisi regime in control.
Like many other countries that experienced a change in leadership following the Arab Spring, Egypt has found itself stuck in place and may possibly be reverting to its old ways. While the prospect for democracy in Egypt looked bright shortly after the uprising in 2011, the military has successfully managed to maintain control. Mohammed Morsi’s brief rule was quickly followed by the election of a military leader. The current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, has continued the consolidation of power that led to Morsi’s ousting and will likely continue to do so, justifying it with the threat of terrorism.
While the United States may not approve of the recent governing issues in Egypt, other countries have stepped in to provide military aid to the al-Sisi government. Egypt now presents a challenge to both itself and its traditional allies. As the threat of terrorism grows in the region, a democratic Egypt is becoming less of a policy priority for the west. As a result, there is little pressure on President al-Sisi to uphold liberal principles. We’ll have to see if that conundrum holds true in the new year.