Egypt in Turmoil



The civil unrest that began in late January 2011 with the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continues to roil this critically important Arab country.  Subsequent President Mohammad Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt's first freely elected leader, was ousted by the army in July 2013 after mass protests.  Join Active Minds as we explore the origins and implications of Egypt’s current situation and where this story may go from here.

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, Muslim Caliphs, Ottomans, French, Mameluks, and finally the British from 1882-1952.  Until the British, Islam was the imperial religion, practiced by Egypt’s conquerors (Persians, Muslim Caliphs, Byzantines, Mameluks, Ottomans). 
  • In 1922, the British granted limited independence to Egypt.  A parliamentary system was introduced which in theory would have had the King 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 politically 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.
  • Anti-Mubarak protests erupted in late January 2011, after the successful protests in Tunisia toppled the 23-year rule of that country’s dictator earlier in the year.  The peaceful protests were met with violence from Mubarak’s government and supporters.  After attempting to appease the growing tide of protestors, Mubarak resigned from the Presidency on February 11, 2011.  Thereafter, Egyptian military dissolved parliament and suspended the Constitution, in order to prepare 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 on July 3, 2013.  In August 2013, the interim government began a vigorous and violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  The military-backed interim government announced a transition plan that includes a referendum on a new constitution in January 2014.
  • The US finds itself in a delicate and tricky situation regarding its relationship with the current Egyptian government.  Support (including the $1.3 billion dollars annually provided in military aid) helps maintain a relationship with a secular ally in the Arab Muslim world, one which recognizes the validity of the existence of another US ally, Israel.  At the same time, continued support for the Egyptian military government, after it seized power from a democratically elected (albeit Islamist) President, makes it difficult for the US to say that it is a champion of democracy.

Exploration Questions

  • What indicators are there that Egypt may be able to create a stable democratic government, nothwithstanding its history of autocratic leaders?
  • How does the history of outside rule and influence over Egypt influence the story of Egypt today as it looks after the ouster of Morsi?
  • What are the major implications for the US and Middle East stability in the current Egyptian situation?

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

Books for Further Reading

  • Tignor, Robert L. Egypt: A Short History. Princeton University Press, 2010. 363 pages. A concise history of Egypt from the first settlement in the Nile Valley 5000 years ago to the present day.
    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