from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Democrats?

January 16, 2013

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Politics and Government


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?