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How successful was the Arab Spring in Egypt?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Jaspreet Chahal

In 2011, a wave of protests engulfed most of North Africa for democracy and toppled the regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. Tahrir Square, Cairo, had thousands of protestors demanding Hosni Mubarak, a 30-year dictator, to end his premiership. The 18-day, dramatic protest was successful, Mubarak was ousted.[1] But, as with many nations that attempt to have democracy after a long period of autocracy, there was a political vacuum and instability in the nation in the years following the revolution.

Some of the key aims of the Arab Spring were democratic free elections, greater human rights, economic freedoms.

The first election which occurred in Egypt was relatively democratic. Although the only remaining party after Mubarak’s government was the Muslim Brotherhood, their aims to push for elections prior to the writing of a new election failed and they promised to not field candidates for more than 50% of the available seats within the Egyptian Parliament.[2] However, Ghanem implicitly suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood’s 58% seats allowed them to shift the constitution to favour themselves and religious values rather than secularism and democratic principles.[3]

After Morsi won the 2012 Presidential elections, he arguably gave himself authoritarian powers, including the power to prevent appeal or cancelling decrees made by a President, which was lambasted and forced to U-Turn. But his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, forced a new constitution which ‘reflected an Islamist vision of Egypt rather than broad societal consensus’. Aswad argued that parts of the constitution like Article 33 ensuring equality of citizens before the law, a common democratic constitutional feature, was vague due to a lack of lists of grounds where discrimination was outlawed, like gender or religion, and, thus, presented a threat for this protection.[4] Vast arrays of society protested Morsi, including ‘a united opposition of secularists and moderate Islamists who were supported by the revolutionary youth, the judiciary, the media, and the cultural elite’.[5] Morsi was deposed.

Field Marshall el-Sisi became the new leader in a military coup, and is, as of 2021, still the President of Egypt.[6] Aswad argued that some revisions returned to Mubarak’s constitutions, and some seemed to protect human rights. For example, the blasphemy ban legislated by Morsi was outlawed, which seemed to allow a fair level of freedom of speech in a very religiously minded nation.[7] But the addition of Article 53 forbids incitement of hatred and is at risk of being used arbitrarily given the ambiguity and scope of the phrase for freedom of expression rights.[8]

Dunne has criticised Sisi’s stranglehold through ‘military officers… increasingly dominat[ing]… civilian institutions such as the judiciary, legislature, [et cetera]’. She argues that although elections occur, oppositions candidates are prevented from standing and the results are dubious.[9] Sisi’s might over the population of Egypt is through his power and influence within his military and represses the Egyptians arguably to the same level as Mubarak did.

Dunne suggests that the military in Egypt has gained dominance by using conscript labour and enjoying tax breaks from the government and free use of government land which has slowly eroded private companies and shifted the balance of power towards an ever-strengthening military.[10] This is contrary to democratic freedoms enjoyed in democratic economies. The military elite is slowly displacing private companies and becoming increasingly powerful from simple political power within Parliament, to now, controlling the flow of cash within the nation.

Sisi has spent money, in true dictator fashion, on ‘vanity megaprojects’ like a $58 billion administrative capital 30 miles east of Cairo in the Desert whilst the average person became poorer.[11] Sisi spent lavishly on weapons with approximately[12] $9 billion on arms from France and Russia, and the United States.

Amnesty International states that in 2020, thousands of people, including journalists and anyone viewed as dissident is arrested and forced into long pre-trial detentions. The list includes ‘human rights defenders, journalists, politicians, lawyers’, and more. Various religious persons of Christianity or Shi’a Islam and others have been arrested on blasphemy charges. Egypt is notorious for renewing pre-trial detention of thousands under investigation, preventing prompt trials and, they remain in horrendous conditions in prison. Amnesty International also cites the ‘Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) as bypassing prosecution release decisions and arresting released defendants on similar charges; or arbitrarily detaining prisoners who have already served their sentences.[13]

The Connectivity Thesis suggests a clear connection of law and morality. Even if the Egyptian law allows all of this to happen ‘legally’, the law is still unjust and immoral. And, thus, it cannot be considered law, as law is just and moral.

To a large extent, the Arab Spring was a failure in terms of instituting a democracy and secular or liberal values, socially and economically. The Sisi government is equally autocratic to Mubarak’s government and has increasing domination in Egyptian society. Although, there are examples of laws that have been more tolerant compared to Mubarak, they seem to fade when considering the military might and judicial domination Sisi has. In the years after Morsi’s deposition, Sisi has consolidated power in the region with his ability to arrest his opponents, much the same as Mubarak. The side-lining of liberals and cultural elites on threat of long-term imprisonment, prior to trial, after an unfair trial, and twice after a long-term sentence has shrunk the energy and optimism that most of the Egyptian youth once had. Unfortunately, Egypt’s hopes for a bright future seem, for the moment, dim.


Image: The Atlantic, 'Tahrir Square Redux: A Tipping Point for Democracy in Egypt?' (The Atlantic, Global, 1 July 2013 <> accessed 10 June 2021.

[1] Erin Blakemore, 'What was the Arab Spring and how did it spread?' (National Geographic, 19 March 2019) <> accessed 10 June 2021.

[2] Hafez Ghanem, The Arab Spring Five Years Later (Brookings Institution Press 2015) 14, 15.

[3] Hafez Ghanem, The Arab Spring Five Years Later (Brookings Institution Press 2015) 15.

[4] Evelyn Mary Aswad, ‘The Role of Religion in Constitutions Emerging from Arab Spring Revolutions’ (2015) 16(1) Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 162.

[5] Hafez Ghanem, The Arab Spring Five Years Later (Brookings Institution Press 2015) 18.

[6] Michele Dunne ‘Egypt: Trends in Politics, Economics, and Human Rights’ (2020) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2.

[7] Evelyn Mary Aswad, ‘The Role of Religion in Constitutions Emerging from Arab Spring Revolutions’ (2015) 16(1) Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 163.

[8] Ibid 163.

[9] Michele Dunne ‘Egypt: Trends in Politics, Economics, and Human Rights’ (2020) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Amnesty international, 'Egypt 2020' (Amnesty International, Egypt, 2020) <> accessed 10 June 2021.

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