While the world’s attention has been riveted on Ukraine and what move an emboldened Vladimir Putin will make next, diverse threats to democracy have intensified on other fronts as well. The story is not new. According to Freedom House, 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which more countries experienced declines in political rights or civil liberties than improvements. Since 2005, democracy has ceased its decades-long expansion, leveling off at about 60 percent of all independent states. And since the military coup in Pakistan in 1999, the rate of democratic breakdowns has accelerated, with about one in every five democracies failing.
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In the months leading up to Egypt’s military coup on July 3, 2013, it became common to hear some variation of the following: President Mohammed Morsi was a new pharaoh, a dictator in the making, or a purveyor of a new, dangerous kind of fascism. Morsi, who was elected after the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, was undoubtedly incompetent and failed to govern inclusively. Yes, he was the wrong man at the wrong time, but was he really an autocrat? Or, put differently, was his one year of rule patently “undemocratic,” as so many Egyptian and even Western analysts claimed?
This might appear to be an academic question. But, to understand how Egypt got to where it is now—in the grip of strongman politics, military domination, and seemingly unyielding repression—it is critical to understand what did, or did not, come before. After all, if Morsi was, indeed, some kind of autocrat—and if a democratic transition was no longer democratic—then some kind of corrective measure, however painful, could be justified or at least explained away as inevitable. But it also matters for how we understand the process of democratization in deeply divided societies. What can, and should, we expect? Was Egypt, or Morsi, somehow unique in the broader sweep of political change after revolutions or uprisings?
The only way to answer these questions is to look not at how Morsi’s rule measured up against the hopes of revolutionaries, or our own, but to establish an empirical baseline around clear political benchmarks. What exactly happened during other transitions in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia?
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Now that military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has declared his intention to run for Egypt’s presidency, he should keep something in mind: Both Hosni Mubarak and his successor, Mohammed Morsi, weren’t only ousted from the country’s highest office because they suppressed political and constitutional rights. They also fell because fitful economic reforms failed to address poverty and near-poverty (affecting about 50 percent of the population), high unemployment (13-plus percent), extremely high youth unemployment (25-plus percent), and unchecked inflation (11-plus percent).
Sisi may meet the same fate—and for the same reasons—when he leaves his shadowy existence as the country’s puppet master to run for president later this year. In fact, his chosen prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawy, a moderate economist appointed in July 2013 after the army deposed Morsi, resigned in February due, in part, to economic distemper: fuel shortages, power cuts, and rolling strikes.
The slogans of the Tahrir Square revolt—now a seeming eon ago in January 2011—expressed Egyptians’ desire for a new political and economic order: “bread, freedom, and social justice.”
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Reflections on the meaninglessness of terrorism in post-Arab Spring Egypt.
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With the rise of al-Qaeda, increasingly repressive regimes, and weak, even collapsing states, the Arab Spring is looking more and more like a nightmare for U.S. security interests. Perhaps, then, it makes some sense that the Obama administration would increase security assistance to the Middle East, from 69 percent of the total budget request for 2014 to 80 percent. However, this also entails a significant reduction in democracy assistance to the region, which will drop from $459.2 million to $298.3 million. Congress might further deepen these cuts.
But to look at this as a security problem risks conflating cause and effect. Today’s Middle East is a product, at least in part, of failed democratization, and one of the reasons it failed was the timid, half-hearted support of the Obama administration.
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Judging by 2014’s crowded election calendar, this will be a landmark year for democracy. The Economist estimates that an unprecedented 40 percent of the world’s population will have a chance to vote in national polls in 2014. We’ll see races in populous countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, the United States, and, most notably, India, where 700 million people are expected to cast ballots in what Fareed Zakaria has called the “largest democratic process in human history.”
But here’s the catch: The “biggest year for democracy ever,” as The Economist is billing it, follows a year that in many ways was characterized by the ascent of authoritarianism. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, gained the upper hand in the country’s devastating civil war. In Egypt, the crucible of the Arab Spring, the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi and launched a heavy-handed crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other pockets of opposition. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan silenced political opponents and stifled freedom of expression—at least, that is, until a corruption scandal and plans to redevelop a park sparked a backlash against his increasingly authoritarian governing style.
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Beer, some have argued, helped give birth to civilization. In ancient Egypt, sustaining humans through the vagaries of the hunt and the harvest, it was consumed by children as well as adults. It was drunk by the wealthy and the poor alike. It was an integral part of both religious ceremonies—Egyptians offered their thick, sweet version of the stuff up to their gods—and everyday life.
So it’s fitting that beer brewers ranked high in Egyptian society … and that they’d have the tombs to prove it. While doing routine cleaning of the burial plot of a statesman in the court of Amenhotep III—King Tut’s grandfather—in Luxor, a group of Egyptologists from Japan’s Waseda University discovered another tomb: that of Khonso-Im-Heb. He was, apparently, an ancient Egyptian version of Sam Adams, or Adolph Coors, or Mr. Miller High Life: the court’s head of beer production. He brewed his ancient suds in honor of Mut, Egypt’s mother-goddess.
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Nearly six months after the mass uprising-cum-coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, the key cleavages of Egypt’s domestic political conflict are not only unresolved, but unresolvable. The generals who removed Morsi are engaged in an existential struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood: They believe they must destroy the Brotherhood—by, for instance, designating it a terrorist organization—or else the Brotherhood will return to power and destroy them. Meanwhile, Sinai-based jihadists have used Morsi’s removal as a pretext for intensifying their violence, and have increasingly hit targets west of the Suez Canal. Even the Brotherhood’s fiercest opponents are fighting among themselves: the coalition of entrenched state institutions and leftist political parties that rebelled against Morsi is fraying, and the youth activists who backed Morsi’s ouster in July are now protesting against the military-backed government, which has responded by arresting their leaders.
So despite the fact that Egypt’s post-Morsi transition is technically moving forward, with a new draft constitution expected to pass via referendum in mid-January and elections to follow shortly thereafter, the country is a tinderbox that could ignite with any spark, entirely derailing the political process and converting Egypt’s episodic tumult into severe instability. What might that spark be?
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Turkey, one of the most repressive countries in the world for journalists, is welcoming outcasts from Egypt and Syria.
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On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, just weeks before Ahmed Maher would resort to scribbling notes on toilet paper from his jail cell to communicate with the outside world, I caught up with him on the campus of Portland State University in Oregon. Maher, 33, is the co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots group that was instrumental in organizing the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. I had written about Maher in 2008, when A6Y was little more than a motley cadre of rabble-rousers using Facebook and social media to rattle the regime, and again post-revolution, when the world was intoxicated by that thing called the Arab Spring, and Maher and his peers were on their way to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
What a difference three years makes. Egypt so far looks like an epic flail. Members of secular groups like A6Y have always known that you can’t snap your fingers and create a civil society. As Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive who helped galvanize public fury toward Mubarak’s thug-ocracy, put it: “Revolutions are processes, not events.” Unfortunately, that process to date has been characterized by economic dysfunction, broken promises from elected officials and military leadership, flare-ups of deadly violence, and, most recently, a ban on public protests every bit as draconian as Mubarak-era prohibitions. Just this week, Egyptian authorities acquitted some of Mubarak’s closest allies of corruption while filing new terrorism charges against deposed President Mohammed Morsi. A cynic would say the revolution has been hijacked. Worse, even: deleted.
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