One year after the election of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt is in a state of political paralysis and economic crisis. The revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak and major figures in his regime also revealed the magnitude of social and political challenges facing the country. Mismanagement of the transitional period has only exacerbated these challenges and prevented Egypt’s first civilian president from implementing any notable political reforms. 

Successful democratization experiments in other contexts have been based on two risky yet crucial factors: political consensus on the constitutional and legal rules governing the political process and party politics; and the implementation of reforms in state bodies and institutions. But Egypt failed to establish a strong foundation of consensus to govern its political process. Such a foundation would have helped avert the current state of polarization in Egyptian politics, which has stalled the country’s democratic transformation.

The Battle Over the Constitution and Key Legislation

Revolutionary groups and many of the civil bodies allied with them demanded the abolition of the 1971 constitution, arguing that a new one should be drafted given the fall of the old regime. Islamist parties did not take clear stances on this issue, even though the previous constitution was written not by Islamist legal scholars but by liberals. Despite this, figures from liberal and leftist groups were the most vocal in calling for the annulment of the 1971 constitution. 

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which governed Egypt between Mubarak’s fall and Morsi’s election, held a referendum on the 1971 constitution in which 77 percent of the population voted to amend eight articles in the old text rather than abolish it altogether. The council’s decision to ignore this result and throw out the constitution after Egyptians had voted to simply amend it surprised the country. This move was followed by the announcement of a constitutional declaration intended to serve as the fundamental law of the country until a new leadership could be elected and enact a permanent constitution. But the declaration proved disappointing and only served to cause more confusion in the political arena. 

Countries that have successfully democratized in the past, such as Poland, began their transitional periods only after deciding on a final constitution. They either amended their old constitutions and launched democratic transitional phases within that framework or reached a consensus on a new constitution before holding elections. Egypt should have followed suit. Instead, it reversed the process. 

The path that Egypt took resulted in the election of a parliament (dissolved after four months) and a president before their powers were constitutionally determined and before Egyptians had agreed on which system of governance to adopt (parliamentary, presidential, or mixed). It also meant that efforts to write a new constitution began after the Muslim Brotherhood had already come to power. 

The Constituent Assembly was created to draft this new constitution. Leaving aside discussion of how the body was formed, as well as the accusations exchanged by rival political groups and the withdrawal of secular, liberal, and other non-Islamist representatives from the assembly, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood gained power before the establishment of the Constituent Assembly caused many Egyptians to view this body as the work of the ruling party. This perception contributed to a crisis of confidence within the opposition, which felt marginalized in the process that produced the constitution and, as a result, viewed the constitution as tailored to those in power. 

Polarization and Stalled Reforms 

Political polarization in Egypt has increased ever since President Morsi decided in November 2012 to unveil a constitutional declaration that safeguarded his political decisions from any legal challenge. This act led the opposition to adopt a new, more confrontational vocabulary that has deepened the divide between it and the regime. This vocabulary includes calls to confront both the “occupation” of the political system by the Brotherhood and the “liberal traitors” doing the bidding of the United States and the West. Terms such as “infidel” have also become commonplace. A large cross section of Egyptian youth has taken to the streets once again in protest and has even launched a “Tamarrud” or “Rebel” movement that is working to gather signatures on a petition demanding early presidential elections. 

Despite this renewed mobilization by civilian groups, which took to the street during the revolution and the tenure of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a strong political alternative to Muslim Brotherhood rule has yet to coalesce. This has led some Egyptians to see the military, rather than the civilian opposition, as a possible alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The current state of polarization is the result of two perceptions that have obstructed attempts at political and institutional reform. The first perception, held by the political elite and large segments of the public, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to control, rather than reform, state institutions. The second perception, held by those who currently control these institutions, is that reform efforts are tantamount to retaliation against them. The Brotherhood has been unable to convince these individuals that they should allow institutional reform for both the public good and the benefit of the institutions themselves. 

Bad Management of State Institutional Reforms

In May 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies pressured members of the Shura Council—the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, which was elected by just 6 percent of the Egyptian people—to discuss legislation governing judicial power. One of the new articles proposed lowering the retirement age for judges from seventy to sixty years old, which would have resulted in the forced retirement of 3,500 out of the country’s 13,000 judges. The article raised suspicions about attempts by the Brotherhood to appoint sympathetic judges in place of those forced to retire. 

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a fierce protest against the judicial authorities in front of the Supreme Court in the heart of downtown Cairo. The protest called for a purge of the judiciary. It also demanded that judges in charge of the Judges’ Club, a body that acts as the representative of Egypt’s judiciary and has frequently come into conflict with the Brotherhood-led government, be held accountable for judicial opposition to the Brotherhood’s policies. 

The Muslim Brotherhood, which preferred to use a conservative tone in its discourse when it was an opposition party, has adopted more revolutionary rhetoric since coming to power. The new rulers rely on the language of revolutionary legitimacy as a tool against political rivals and as a means to control state institutions, such as the judiciary, without undertaking reforms.

The accusations the Brotherhood leveled against the judiciary after Morsi became president were astonishing, especially as it was the same judiciary that supervised the presidential elections. It was also the same judiciary that repeatedly ruled for the release of a number of Muslim Brotherhood members in judicial cases fabricated against them by the old regime. Some of these cases were then referred to military tribunals, which eventually convicted figures such as prominent Muslim Brotherhood member and former Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater in 2007. 

It was thanks to this judiciary that the legislative elections of 2005 were held under somewhat fair conditions. The judges who oversaw these elections were subjected to insults by regime figures following attempts by Mubarak’s party to rig the third electoral round of that year. These events led Egyptians to the famous chant: “O judges, o judges, rid us of the tyrants.” 

This judicial supervision allowed the Brotherhood to win 88 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections and other opposition parties to secure an additional 30 seats. Without judicial oversight of the polls, the opposition would not have achieved these results. This explains why Mubarak eliminated the judiciary’s electoral role in 2010, resulting in one of the most fraudulent elections in Egypt’s modern history. This election was one of the catalysts for the revolution. 

After the uprising, all sides agreed that free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections could only be held with full judicial supervision. Thus, Egypt’s unconventional electoral system came to mandate both full judicial oversight and the holding of legislative elections over a period of more than one month (a peculiarity that is essentially an Egyptian invention). The consensus among political groups that fair elections are impossible without such judicial supervision testifies to the confidence Egyptians across the political system have in the country’s judiciary. 

The Brotherhood’s call to purge the judiciary is more appropriate for Baathist or Stalinist regimes than for Egypt, whose judiciary has long been characterized as semi-independent. The judicial system is in need of reforms, especially in its procedures for selecting new members and guidelines for professional development, but this does not justify the forced retirement of thousands of judges. 

Yet, Egypt has failed to arrive at a consensus on the fundamental rules governing the political process, and those in power have failed to implement any meaningful reforms—whether of the judiciary or any of the state’s other institutions, including the police, media, and civil service. The economic and political crisis, as well as general insecurity, continues to worsen day after day as the country faces a difficult future. It is this future that should be the focal point of upcoming debate and discussion.