Military Coup, Elections, and Authoritarian Survival in Egypt



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  Bülent Aras*
  POMEAS PAPER No.1, June 2014

Not a year has passed since the coup d'etat in July 2013, which ended the rule of the only civilian leader in Egyptian politics; Mohammed Morsi. The military takeover has culminated in mass protests and unrest which resulted more than 3000 casualties. The recent victory of the new president, the formal general Abdel Fattah Sisi in June 2014 is built on a transition rule of systematic oppression and restriction of fundamental freedoms.

This vicious cycle repeats itself is authoritarian survival of the political regime, which is an intrinsic tendency in Egyptian politics. As Egypt's flawed transition after the Arab Spring requires a comprehensive analysis, this brief aims to discuss the complex nature and practice of authoritarian survival in Egypt and to offer realistic policy alternatives in dealing with this structural problem.


The peaceful overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt was considered a successful turn of the Arab Spring with an optimistic outlook. Free and fair elections brought Muhammad Morsi to power in 2011; a high voter turnout further fed this positive account of the future of the Arab Spring. However, positive prospects waned after a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put an end to Morsi rule and suspended the Egyptian Parliament.

The general atmosphere of the Arab Spring is not much different than the situation in Egypt in that there is little if not none hope for the future. The developments in Egypt will play a decisive role in the fate of the Arab Spring despite its marginal position in playing a role in the wider Arab world. The presidential elections in Egypt in May 2014 exemplified the maneuvers of authoritarian survival, which aims to control society with an alleged political capital of stability. Yet, it is far from drawing support and providing legitimacy as it was recognized that the Egyptian administration forced an increase in participation in the elections. A discussion of the reasons of Egypt's predicament would provide clues about the course of politics in Egypt and the layout of the regional political landscape in the upcoming period. Egypt's flawed transition requires a multi-layered analysis of the interactions and developments at the domestic and regional levels. A comprehensive analysis of Egypt's predicament and mid- to long-term challenges could help consider a number of realistic policy alternatives for overcoming the problems.

Coup for stability

The coup in July 2013 against Morsi aimed to remove an autocratic ruler from government and restore stability in a country that was on the brink of collapse. According to this line of argument, the Mursi government did not fulfill its promises of an inclusive democracy; the government leaned towards autocracy, exempted presidential decrees from review, favored Islamist groups, and oppressed secular opposition and activists. The deteriorating situation was evident in street protests against the Morsi government, decreasing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and divisions within the Islamic bloc. The coup was justified to a considerable extent with an assumed public support.

All the failures and, in particular, hegemonic tendencies of the Morsi government mobilized the public to support a coup for stability. The main role of Egypt in the Arab world and regional geopolitics was placing this instability in a regional perspective with a growing concern of interested international actors, mainly the U.S. They would be supportive of any move that would place Egypt on a corrective course to eliminate potential harm to their interests. The domestic and regional environment was ripe for a coup in Egypt. The coup occurred in July 2013, and a transition government replaced the Morsi government with the promise of a new constitution and elections.

Egypt now had a new government consisting of experienced and respected members and General Sisi chose to stand aside to supervise the country's transition. The trust placed in the military in Egypt is due to its natural tendency to provide security and to represent a state authority that would ensure that the people would have someone to act as arbiter as a last resort. Sisi wanted to safeguard this status when he decided not to play a major role in the transition government. However, this did not work in practice and Sisi will be president at the end of May 2014. The Egyptian military took sides in politics and as a result will not enjoy their former popularity in the foreseeable future in Egyptian society.1 One should also assume that the support for Sisi is not overwhelming. He has the majority support, however it is an overwhelming support to make him a national hero. Egypt's transition government has been successful in keeping a coup order in power, consolidating it in Egyptian politics through security measures, and changing the constitution. The cost for such limited achievement is the loss of lives numbering in the hundreds, death sentences of more than a thousand people, country-wide oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and some secular opposition, freedom of the press, fundamental rights of the people, and widespread alienation in the country. Furthermore, improvement is yet to be seen in the daily lives of the people, scarcity of energy, unemployment, and the worsening economic situation.

There are also Salafi dilemmas in considering the stability of Egypt. Salafis are the second most powerful Islamic group, which had a high number of representation in the Egyptian Parliament following the Muslim Brotherhood.2 They supported Morsi in exchange for making a constitution sensitive to Islamic rules. Later, they supported the coup against Morsi for pragmatic reasons of retaining legal in Egyptian politics. The Salafi Nur Party made it clear that they favor the parliamentary system and they are against a powerful president who may dominate the political spectrum. The Sisi presidency is a blow to their Islamic concerns, which was wiped out from the changed constitution and their worries about a dominant president. Their pragmatic decision to side with Sisi makes them suspicious partners in politics at best.

The assumption that the coup would provide Egypt with stability has not yet proven to be true. As Hamid and Wheeler argued about the coup, "It was legitimized and justified based on a fundamental misreading and distortion of what came before".3 There is ample evidence of the mismanagement of the economy, favoritism, unnecessary rhetoric and illusionary self-confidence, attempts to avoid judicial control, and other problems in the Morsi era. However, this is far from justifying a violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood that took place after peaceful protests demanded Morsi back in office. The coup did not make the Egyptian situation better and probably worse in a number of issues ranging from security situation to economy. The transition government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and considered the struggle against it a done deal. The current government is swimming against the tide considering the recent history of Egypt and the public stronghold of the movement within Egyptian society.


Flawed transition in Egypt

Egypt has been historically ruled mostly by the military, and Morsi has been the only civilian leader. Morsi was voted into power after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime by popular protests. The Egyptian military took over after a brief civilian government and initiated a transition period to restore political order in the country. In addition to the lack of civilian experience in Egyptian history, the current transition occurs in an authoritarian context within a deeply divided society. Although the expectation was that of reconciliation, the Egyptian transition turned into an exclusionary process paving the way for further polarization in the country. The evidence for this exclusionary attitude was visible during the process of amending the constitution. Not one of the fifty members of the committee was from the majority party and instead gave an upper hand to the bureaucracy, the Ministry, and the judges. Originally, the idea was to change amendments but instead turned out to be a considerable change to the whole constitution. The changes to the constitution were approved by 98% of the voters, however only 38% of the eligible voting population turned out to the polls.4

The flawed transition also reflects the generational difference and youth dissatisfaction with regard to the process. Egyptian youth is not monolithic, and there is support for Sisi among them. Young people have lost hope in improving the situation in Egypt as opposed to higher hopes in 2011. They were the frontrunners of a revolution that changed the country. However, the country they transformed is under the rule of former politicians, and there seems to be no possible change in the short term. Pressure on activists continues under the transition government; the oppression on Islamists and silencing of the liberals limit the role and involvement of young people in the political process like the rest of Egyptian society. The only way to get involved is to side with the Sisi establishment, which is already overcrowded by old guards.

Egypt has an overwhelmingly young society, which is dictated by the demography of the country. There are enormous problems concerning education, employment, and the generational gap. A large part of disappointment is the inability of successive rulers to bring about a change to these problems and, in the least, to offer prospective solutions. High hopes for improvement in the post-revolution country waned due to Morsi's detachment from the Tahrir spirit and a failed restoration attempt of the transition rule after the military coup.5

The elections are a major step in the road map of transition rule. Egypt had its only free and fair elections after the revolution. The atmosphere was distinctly different than the authoritarian setting of transition rule. There is now a systemic exclusion of masses, groups, and individuals. We are, interestingly enough, currently experiencing an election season in the Arab countries from Algeria to Syria and Iraq. It would not be an exaggeration to say that none of these elections have anything to do with a change of system or government. The Egyptian elections are not different in this sense. Egyptians go to vote under the circumstance of escalating violence and oppression. It is no more than a plebiscite without an actual opposition and political campaign.

One might ask why bother with an election if it is nothing more than a plebiscite. There are several reasons for holding elections in Egypt. All reasons are related to allowing those behind the coup preserve their hold on power without any substantial promise to change the Egyptian political system. It is a procedural issue that the transition ruler needs to prove that things are moving in a positive direction. Although the end result is pre-determined, it still gives an impression of political dynamism and a good picture for the future record. The elections in Egypt's authoritarian political environment will also help to create and reinforce patronage networks for consolidating the authority of the Sisi leadership in the country. The elections make more sense to those within these patronage networks compared to the unwilling masses; those who are not interested in the elections have no hope for change. The involvement in political campaigns and active participation in the election processes creates a political theater which is part and parcel of authoritarian settings like Egypt.

The elections also have an external dimension of seeking legitimacy abroad. As Lynch argued, "Egypt is relentlessly marketing the election abroad as a sign of adherence to a road map toward a return to civilian rule".6 The direct target here is the U.S. at the top of list of important countries and international actors. It is followed by the Gulf countries, the European Union, as well as international economic and political organizations. The elections would serve for the normalization of relations with international actors through creating an image of leaving the coup behind. The patience and tolerance shown by international actors toward the military coup in Egypt is a sign of willingness to normalize relations with Egypt. The elections would provide necessary conditions whether or not it is part of political theatrics.

One of the problems that the Egyptian people have had to deal with is the economic ruin of the country. Since 2011, interim and transition governments have failed to keep stability and create opportunities for its citizens even though Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait pledged US$17 billion to the Egyptian government.7 Abdou and Zaazou state that the revolution in Egypt brought about new financial problems like "low foreign direct investments (FDI), a high budget deficit, a high debt rate, a high unemployment rate, a high poverty rate, and a low standard of living".8 In this sense, neither Mohammad Morsi nor Abdel Fettah al-Sisi could satisfy the financial demands of the society. Hazem El-Beblawy, Finance Minister of the Morsi government, believes that Morsi did not try to solve the basic and urgent financial problems instead repeated the same mistakes (referring to foreign debt and investment), thus the economy worsened.9 In line with those arguments, there is another argument claiming that Morsi did not prioritize financial problems and so could not promote financial recovery.

Foreign investment and debt was on Sisi's agenda yet the basic problems remain unresolved. Adly argues that the Egyptian economy still suffers in three main areas, "a huge budget deficit estimated to hover at around 12 percent of the GDP; a balance of payment deficit due to the slowdown in tourism and large capital outflows; and the continuous erosion of foreign reserves".10 However, there is no clear plan that would support the Sisi claim for relative success in addressing the financial concerns of the Egyptian society. The traditional role of the military in the economy, bureaucratic inefficiency, and widespread corruption persists in Egypt. The empty rhetoric of transition rule's fight against these structural impediments for improving economic conditions in country did not help much in this regard. While facing the questions of a high unemployment rate, an energy crisis, and long-term protracted economic crisis, Sisi only referred to the importance of stability and asked for faith in their upcoming work in solving economic problems.

President Sisi a cure?

Sisi is the president of a deeply divided and polarized country. There is a rationale for choosing Sisi from the Egyptian perspective. The elections are nothing more than a plebiscite in which Sisi would have been ultimately chosen. The nuance is the analysis of the rhetoric in supporting Sisi, which makes sense within a certain segment of Egyptian society. Hamid describes ten reasons for voting for Sisi.11 In his line of logic, all justifications for carrying him to the presidential palace is related to stability. The Sisi establishment also wants to add a security dimension to this reasoning. However, they are not doing well as almost half of Egyptian society is not convinced of this argument.

In Egypt's election, two candidates ran for presidency: Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi. Sisi won 94% of votes while his rival gained 3% of total votes and 3.7% of votes were declared void. During the election process, Sisi individually conducted his election campaign meeting with several representatives from political parties, NGOs, or influential political groups behind closed doors. He never addressed the masses or participated in political rallies due to security concerns. However, the volunteers of Sisi's campaign worked diligently all around country and both private and state media did their utmost for Sisi's triumph. The other candidate, Sabahi, who gained 20.72% of the vote in 2012 during the first round of elections, freely roamed around the country and visited 5 provinces.12

During the election process, Sisi made promises concerning mainly two issues: to provide economic stability and to fight against "terrorism". Sisi even hinted at amending the Camp David agreement for deploying Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai Peninsula so as to prevent the "terrorist" activities on the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, he pledged for the end of the Muslim Brotherhood, designated as a terrorist organization that will be unable to reorganize in Egypt. In terms of the economy, he promised to revive the Egyptian economy within two years by targeting to build new infrastructure and to envisage mid- and long-term goals in decreasing unemployment. In this context, it is highly possible that the Egypt ruled by Sisi will be financially supported by the Gulf countries, in particular by the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Sisi forecasts that he can ensure stability in the country by coping with "terrorist" organizations and reviving the economy. He believes that resolving these two main issues would be possible by a strong leadership and support of Egyptians.

Sabahi's campaign, on the other hand, was low profile and called for freedom of mass protests and for the reallocation of wealth in the country. His rhetoric worried the Egyptian middle class and were not able to reach to lower and lower-middle class of Egyptian society. Sabahi also promised that he would not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to reemerge in Egyptian politics.

Despite the fact that Sisi won 94% of votes, the turnout was only 46%, meaning that more than half of the voters did not want Sisi to become president or at least could not rely on him.13 This political apathy left a question mark in the minds of people regarding the legitimacy of the newly-elected president of Egypt. This voter turnout could have been less, however, an hour before voting was initially scheduled to end, the Egyptian election committee announced they would extend voting an extra day. Even though Sisi won the election, it seems as if this was not the kind of victory his campaign had in mind before the elections. The lack of voter turnout highlighted the lack of desired loyalty to Sisi rule and questioned his legitimacy to rule in the future.

There has been mixed international reception following the results of Egypt's presidential election. After the military coup, the Gulf countries politically and economically backed Sisi to prevent a return of the Muslim Brotherhood which may in return spark a similar hope of change in their own countries. Therefore, election results will be welcomed by the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE. A UAE Foreign Minister already stated that Sisi represents a "new hope" for the Arab World. Sisi grants a blank check to strengthen political and economic ties with the Gulf countries as well. Qatar faced difficulties with other Gulf countries due to opposing the military coup in Egypt and having a critical attitude towards the transition rule in Egypt. Qatar kept its silence after the election results in Egypt for a while and congratulated him with a message during the inauguration ceremony. Russian President Vladimir Putin also congratulated Sisi on his "convincing" election victory. It has already been declared by both sides that they are ready to cement their relations. So far, there has been a considerable number of congratulatory addresses to Sisi from western countries after official results despite low-key attendance to inauguration ceremony. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Sisi and congratulated his election victory.14

Egypt is now entering a difficult period. The positive outlook for the future in the aftermath of the revolution has been replaced with dim prospects. Sisi has proved not to be the panacea to Egypt during its transition period. As witnessed from the election campaign, there is no plan or vision for the deteriorating economy and worsening political situation in Egypt. Hamzawy defines the situation by stating, "We are really looking at days worse than the Mubarak days, because even under Mubarak we had opposing voices being heard every now and then, but now it's being suppressed. We are witnessing the reinvention of the police state".15

Concluding observations

History repeats itself in Egypt. Egypt under Sisi is reminiscent of the worst periods in its history with a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and a systematic oppression and restriction of fundamental freedoms. The July 2013 coup era initiated the rise of Sisi in Egyptian politics, and he became the second elected president in June 2014. This has been a tough era with a flawed transition period and failed promises of stability and growth. This situation is again an authoritarian survival of the political regime, which is an intrinsic tendency in Egyptian politics. The difference in the current era is the direct involvement of the military, which was able to preserve more or less a position above politics, though signified with a protectorate role, in previous decades. There seems to be polarization, confrontation, and alienation in Egyptian politics, which would be dominated by authoritarian survival strategies of rulers and counter-maneuvers of opposition forces. There would be the Egyptian revolution and the Tahrir spirit in the background with a limiting force to the policy of authoritarian survival. The choice of Sisi rule to pursue this authoritarian survival is not likely to manifest itself through public policies and economic performance. Their only options would be employing the measures of systematic oppression, controlling media, threat of violence, patronage networks, and imagined enemies. One may observe a number of issues pertaining to these problems from a wider perspective. The observations on the challenges ahead would also help to identify possible policy options in the dire straits of Egyptian politics.

First, Egypt is not an easy catch for both domestic and international actors. The Muslim Brotherhood base, the military coup, or any other would not be enough to dominate the political arena. The key point is to think of governance rather than domination and hegemony. Egypt is a deeply divided and polarized society, and the Arab Spring changed the public mood in that restoration of the old era, i.e. Mubarak rule, would not be possible. External actors should be cognizant of the situation in Egypt that special relations of one group or helping to advance of another does not guarantee them a privileged position in Egypt. Anything that falls short of a system of inclusive governance and the rule of pluralism and tolerance would make prospective Egyptian governments only a limited ally to external actors. The approach of losing or winning Egypt is a zero sum game in regional politics and disastrous for Egypt itself.

Second, Egypt's issue of political Islam needs to have a perspective of accommodation and recognition against the current attitude of exclusion and punishment. The solution lies in the expanding boundaries of legitimate politics and the integration of different actors into the political system. The opposite direction is creating anti-systemic forces, extremism, and violence which is the current path of development of politics in Egypt.

Third, there is need for the normalization of socioeconomic conditions of the daily lives of the people. The economic situation is declining with little chance of improvement soon.The demographic crisis is already taking place in the country. There is no hope for the future among young people who are experiencing a widening generational gap. The societal situation is conflict-prone and tension is on the rise. Possible attempts in providing relief to this challenge are generating employment, building industrial infrastructure, attracting FDI, improving conditions of urban life, reforming education (in particular universities). They should move beyond superficial rhetoric and mid-to long-term planning and towards prospective deliveries to satisfy the demands in Egypt

Forth, the protests in Tahrir provides legitimacy to both putting an end to political rules and counter-revolutionary moves in Egypt. The street mobility and electoral apathy, as was seen since 2011, are two possible ways of political expression and participation in Egypt. There should be other ways of channeling societal demands into politics. The low level of political institutionalization is a major problem and should be dealt with in accordance with the rising political demands, differences, and objections.

Fifth, the role of political Islam in Egypt has become hostage to the dilemma between majoritarian democracy and liberalism. As Hamid pointed out, the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood led to a crisis of worldviews between Islam and liberal democracy.16 Falk underlines the shift to a republican democracy with an empowerment of judicial and bureaucratic oversight on the government to put an end to autocracy.17 The issue here is to succeed with an inclusive democracy with the protection of rights and liberties. However, the failures and tactical shifts in the lines of majoritarian, republican, and liberal versions of democratic trials lead to the hijacking of the political system and authoritarian survival in Egypt.

Sixth, Sisi has not yet proved that he can provide stability as a political and economic capital. He will attempt to develop a system of reward and punishment for the sake of authoritarian survival of his rule. He needs loyalty to justify his rule but fell short during the elections. The "incentives" to vote would keep a shadow on the forced increase in voter turnout. The delicate line between mass protests and authoritarian survival may turn against Sisi, which would cause international legitimacy to fade away quickly.


1 Michael Makara, "Coup-Proofing, Military Defection, and the Arab Spring," Democracy and Security 9, No.4 (2013): 334-359.

2 Bruce K. Rutherford, "Egypt: the Origins and Consequences of the January 25 Uprising," in The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, ed. Haas, M.L. and Lesch, D.W. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 35-63. 

3 Shadi Hamid and Meredith Wheeler, "Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat?" Atlantic, March 31, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

4 Patrick Kingsley, "Egypt's New Constitution Gets 98% 'Yes' Vote," The Guardian, 18 January, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

5 "The Revolutionary Promise: Youth Perceptions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia," The British Council, accessed June 4, 2014,

6 Marc Lynch, "This Is What Arab Election Season Looks Like in 2014," The Washington Post, April 21, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

7 "Egypt Overview," The World Bank, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

8 Doaa S. Abdou and Zeinab Zaazou, "The Egyptian Revolution and Post Socio-economic Impact," Topics in Middle Eastern and African Economies 15, No.1 (2013): 92. 

9 Sara Aggour, "Hazem El-Beblawy: Morsi's Overall Economic Performance Was Weak," Daily News Egypt, June 29, 2013, accessed June 4, 2014, 

10 Amr Adly, "Transitional Economics in Egypt," Middle East Institute, February 27, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

11 Shadi Hamid, Temptations of power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

12 "Presidential Election in Egypt," Carter Center 2012, accessed June 4, 2014,

13 "Egyptians Protest after Sisi Election Victory," Al Jazeera, May 31, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

14 "Sisi Draws Regional Leaders for Inauguration," Al Monitor, June 9, 2014, accessed June 10, 2014

15 "Egypt's Commitment to Press Freedom on Trial," BBC, February 19, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

16 Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

17 Richard Falk, "Majoritarian Democracy vs. Republican Democracy: The Road to Democracy Is a Process Not an Event, and Will Require an Ongoing Struggle," Al Jazeera, January 25, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

 *Academic coordinator of POMEAS