In 2011, the “Arab Spring” uprisings led to the ouster of the authoritarian President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak. This was followed by a brief period of democratization which empowered religiously conservative political parties with ties to extremism.  Over a decade later, Egypt appears to have stabilized, but only via a return to a militarily backed government. Join Active Minds as we explore the origins of Egypt’s turbulent political situation and its implications for the Middle East.

Key Lecture Points

  • Since ancient times Egypt has been ruled centrally without democratic participation, and after the reign of the Pharaohs ended, rule was mostly foreign.  Egypt was conquered and ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, French, Mameluks, and finally the British from 1882-1952.  Until the British, Islam was the imperial religion, practiced by Egypt’s conquerors (Persians, Byzantines, Mameluks, and Ottomans).
  • In 1922, the British granted limited autonomy to Egypt.  A parliamentary system was introduced which in theory would have had a recognized monarch share power with a legislature.  Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the more moderate Wafd Party, strongly supported this democratic turn.  It was the King and the British who quashed democratic practice in this early period, suspending the legislature over ten different times in 30 years.
  • In 1952, the Free Officers Movement, led by General Gamal Abdul Nasser, overthrew the King in a coup, ending the era of British control.  Nasser, fearing for his own power in the face of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, actively purged the opposition from Egypt.  Such undemocratic practices undermined Egypt’s new ‘republican’ constitution.
  • After Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, Anwar Sadat came to power.  By the mid-1970s, Sadat had made great strides in opening Egyptian society, calling for respect of civil liberties and popular participation in politics.  However, Egypt was thrown into turmoil in the late 1970s, largely in reaction to Sadat’s willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel (in exchange for sizable US military aid). Like his predecessor Nasser, Sadat began to clamp down on opposition groups.  Sadat was assassinated by a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1981.
  • Hosni Mubarak rose to power in 1981.  His 30-year regime was characterized by an authoritarian control of the state, maintained by the exercise of martial law throughout his rule.  Mubarak received billions of dollars in US military aid; in exchange, he maintained a recognition of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, and took a hard line on the presence of radical Islamist sentiment in his nation and the world.  That said, his anti-democratic rule made the US-Egyptian alliance complicated.
  • Mubarak was toppled from power in 2011 in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” wherein a number of Arab dictators were toppled from power.  Thereafter, the Egyptian military prepared for new parliamentary and presidential elections.  Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was elected president in 2012.
    Mass demonstrations on the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration led to his removal by the military in 2013.  The interim government, led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi began a vigorous and violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  After resigning from the military, al-Sisi ran for and won the Presidency in 2014.  He has remained in power ever since.
  • The government of al-Sisi has seen a return to autocracy with a crackdown on any political opposition, whether Islamist or secular.  Additionally, al-Sisi (after winning a second term in 2018) extended his political control via Constitutional referendum which allowed to maintain his rule until 2030.
  • The US response to al-Sisi has to balance the needs of maintaining a longstanding ally in the region, notable for its role in controlling Islamist extremism and also supporting Israel, against its return to its reputation for authoritarian repression and abuse of domestic political opponents.

Exploration Questions

  • What strategies can the US use to support democracy in Egypt without empowering extremism in the country?
  • How does the history of outside rule and influence over Egypt influence the story of Egypt today under the power of al-Sisi?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think there can be a democratic government in Egypt?  Why? Why not?
  • Have you ever traveled to Egypt? If so, what do you recall about the experience?

More to Explore

  • BBC Country Profile: Egypt Click here
  • Reporting on Egypt from the Region Click here
  • US Congressional Research Service Report on US-Egyptian Relations: Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Rutherford, Bruce K. and Jeannie Sowers. Modern Egypt: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2018. 232 pages. A concise history of Egypt from the 2011 Arab Spring uprising to the rise and establishment of al Sisi’s rule.
    Click here to order
  • Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013. 656 pages. This book tells the history of Pharaonic Egypt.
    Click here to order
  • Holland, Tom. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (paperback). Anchor, 2013. 560 pages. This book tells the story of the creation of the Arab Empire and its subsequent impact on the current political situation in the Middle East.
    Click here to order