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Mohamed Morsi Mubarak: The Myth of Egypt's Democratic Transition

[Graffiti circulating on social networking sites stating: [Graffiti circulating on social networking sites stating: "Leave your home [to protest] Mohamed Morsi is Mubarak." Photo from "Muqtatafat facebookiyya" Facebook Page]

Two years ago today, Egyptians celebrated their toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and looked ahead to a future of change. Yet the second anniversary of Mubarak’s departure has been marked by further demonstrations, bloodshed, and new scenes of extreme state violence. Amid the now-routine use of tear gas and live fire on protests nationwide, there was the incredible footage of the repeated beating and violation of a citizen stripped naked by a gang of policemen in riot gear, and the death by brutal police torture of Popular Current activist Mohamed El-Gendy.

In this latest wave of national mobilization, Egyptians have been challenging a new president, whom they have dubbed “Mohamed Morsi Mubarak.” With this wordplay, and with the photo-shopped posters to match, Egypt’s revolutionaries have been demolishing the myth of the democratic legitimacy of the current incumbent, and ultimately that of the transitional period to which Egypt was subjected in 2011-12. They are also signaling that the revolution continues, a slogan that is hard to dismiss today.

Youthful political activist Ahmad Douma captured this reality perfectly in his retort to Abdel Moneim Abul Fettouh’s initiative for dialogue with Morsi: “this is the kind of talk that can be said in a television studio, but it has nothing to do with the street. Talk of dialogue while people are being killed is unacceptable. We should be talking about the president, who, for me and the people on the street, is not legitimate. He is merely a criminal on the run…” Activist and revolutionary icon Ahmad Harrara stated simply: “Morsi is not my president because he is a liar.” How did Morsi become Mubarak in just seven months? And how has the revolution grown to cope and resist?

Mubarak’s rule was reviled for many reasons, multiplying down the class scale. The language of the call to protest on 25 January 2011 gives the best indication: it was declared against “torture, poverty, corruption, and unemployment.” There was also a clear rejection during the eighteen days and afterwards of Mubarak’s deferent foreign policy pact with the United States and Israel. And yet, since the accession to the presidency of Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi in summer 2012, each one of these political grievances has been refueled and reloaded.


In the slogan rallying for 25 January, “torture” was shorthand for Mubarak’s police state, and for a security apparatus accustomed to abuses of citizens’ personal rights and freedoms with impunity. Under Morsi, there has been no attempt to reform the security apparatus beyond personnel reshuffles, which have seen many police chiefs promoted, and cosmetic measures such as the establishment of a human rights department in the Ministry of Interior. Egyptian lawyers and rights activists have made concrete proposals for how to go about reforming the policing establishment, including new laws that delineate the roles of the police force, a shakeup in hierarchies at security bureaus, the appointing of civilian regulators and lawyers at police stations, the relieving of the Ministry of Interior of administrative tasks such as identity card registration, and the appointment of a civilian to the top job. There is no lack of creativity in tackling this mammoth task, only a lack of political will.

Instead, an unreconstructed Ministry of Interior continues to display the same conduct toward protest under Morsi as under Mubarak, reflecting entirely securitized understandings of solutions, and extortionate use of force. On the first anniversary of the mid-November 2011 protests of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, security police used teargas and birdshot pellets at close range, wounding hundreds and claiming the life of April 6 movement activist Gaber Salah, commonly known as Jika. On 25 January 2013, the same occurred across twelve of Egypt’s governorates, claiming five lives in Suez alone and wounding nearly 400 nationwide. When families in Port Said reacted angrily at the death sentences handed out to civilian defendants and not to security officials, Morsi simply imposed a curfew of thirty days on three cities, warning that he “would do more” – presumably impose wider emergency law – if not obeyed.

A report issued by Egyptian rights activists in the wake of these protests noted that 225 people had been detained from around Tahrir Square alone since the revolution’s second anniversary, and that this had included minors “subject to torture and days-long incarceration at Central Security Forces (CSF) training camps.” Another report, released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in January 2013, documented eleven deaths and ten cases of torture inside Egyptian police stations during Morsi’s presidency, affirming that police torture was “still systematic, just as it was under the Mubarak regime.” Another, by Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, documented cases of detention and torture perpetrated daily throughout the “first 100 days” of Morsi’s presidency, in which he had promised meaningful change in the security sector and elsewhere.

Last year, it took Morsi all of his 100 days to reach the decision to release 570 civilians who had been thrown in prison after military trials since 2011. Almost 12,000 Egyptians were tried in military courts under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and over 8,000 were handed sentences. Most were believed to be among the poorest of Egypt’s citizens, unable to assure themselves legal representation. Bringing an end to military trials of civilians had been one of the main themes of revolutionary demands for justice during the rule of the military council. Morsi’s flourish of amnesty was too little too late for many revolutionary activists after many victims had perished in jail or been permanently scarred by their experience.

Mubarak’s Ministry of Interior was notorious for covering up its crimes and blaming its victims: Orwellian state television regularly smeared political opposition with charges of foreign conspiracy, thuggery, and vandalism while contrasting them with other, unspecified “honorable citizens.” Meanwhile, security officials were routinely able to avoid justice. Under Mubarak, the death of Khalid Said was blamed on his own drug use rather than police beatings seen by eyewitnesses. The officers later charged with his murder were granted a retrial on the same day that the officer accused of killing Salafist activist Sayed Bilal in early 2011 was acquitted. Under Morsi, as police repressed protests during the constitutional crisis in late 2012, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim commended his police force and their sacrifices, noting that his men had placed citizens’ safety before their own. Most excruciating of all was the testimony of Hamada Saber, the citizen seen beaten by police forces on live television 1 February, who later claimed he had been attacked by protesters, and thanked the police for helping him get away. He was then publicly contradicted by his daughter Randa, and ultimately changed his testimony. She revealed that her father’s denial had come under severe pressure and threats from officers in the police hospital where he was being treated, and that her family had been plied with gifts of sugar, oil and tea in order to acquiesce in this. Saber’s denial evoked Mubarak-era practices in which torture was used to intimidate and coerce victims into silence, whether they were dissidents, criminal suspects, or citizens abused simply to fulfill confession quotas.


Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party was notorious for its corruption and cronyism – packing all positions of influence in public institutions with loyalists. This cronyism has reappeared under Morsi in what has been referred to as the “Brotherhoodization” of the state (akhwanat al-dawla), as successive ministries and advisory positions have become occupied by Brotherhood figures or sympathizers, while dissenters are marginalized or coopted. Alongside Mubarak-era ministers and senior military elites, the first cabinet under Morsi contained eight Islamists, with Brotherhood figures taking such influential positions as the Minister of Information and Education, and allies such as Ahmad Mekki taking the Ministry of Justice. The reshuffle of January 2013 saw two further ministries given to members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and his cabinet have been criticized for overtly privileging the interests of the Brotherhood amid ongoing political conflicts gripping Egypt and for failing to take account of the national constituency and the demands of the revolution.

Under Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsud, for example, practices of media censorship for which Mubarak’s rule was well-known are being reproduced to protect the new regime. Soon after his appointment, Egyptian editors, journalists, and media owners have left their columns blank or gone on collective strike in protest of the increasingly heavy-handed censorship of the press when it comes to criticism of the president. The Islamist-dominated Shura Council, tasked with appointments in state-owned media, has replaced the editors of all of its publications with Brotherhood or regime sympathisers. By November 2012, head of state television had resigned over the coverage of anti-Morsi protests, while a record number of journalists and writers were facing court cases over criticism of the president in the public sphere.

Such Brotherhood cronyism has enabled a noticeable shift in political discourse, in which Islam features much more prominently as a referent, and in which sectarian accusations thrown around by members of Islamist groups and parties are frequent and tolerated. Hence the dismay of many Egyptians, not affiliated to the Brotherhood, when Morsi referred to his audience as “my family and tribe” in his first speech. Morsi’s supporters regularly accuse critics of the government of apostasy or atheism, or even of being Christians. Such hate speech has gone unchecked by representatives of the presidency or government. Morsi is thus sanctioning a framework that seeks to shift the terms of political debate in Egypt to the religious right, enabling in turn the kinds of policies dictated by the new constitution, and marginalizing the perspectives of the left and liberal opposition.

Morsi’s assorted band of presidential aides and advisers has been another case in point. Among the initial twenty-one-strong team, one-third was comprised of Brotherhood members – two members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and four senior members of the FJP, accompanied by prominent Islamist politician Mohamed Salim al-Awa. By contrast, another third of the team had resigned by late November, in protest at lack of consultation over the constitutional crisis. The Morsi administration has charged on regardless, keeping its most loyal voices – such as Essam al-Haddad on foreign relations – close.

Further evidence of corruption among the Brotherhood’s networks – enhanced by recent appointments to top ministries – emerged when the headquarters of the FJP were attacked by protesters in several districts, and documents inside seized. In Suez, these revealed pages of requests for employment, social housing, military service reposting, and leave by members of the FJP, signed and granted by senior officials in the relevant companies, and in the Ministry of Culture. There were requests for the appointment of particular imams to mosques and to the Endowments’ posts in Suez, as well as marriage certificates, and requests for the allocation of land for commercial use, all granted to FJP members.

The clearest signs of corruption in power came during the constitutional crisis that engulfed Egypt in late 2012, in which Morsi made no attempt to intervene as the constituent committee steadily hemorrhaged non-Islamist members, becoming less and less representative and losing the participation of such crucial institutions as Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, he endorsed controversial articles that formalized the military’s political role in a National Defense Council, and guaranteed exclusive supervision over the military budget and a military officer as Minister of Defense. These steps have placed the military beyond the reach of conventional parliamentary accountability and oversight. When the date approached of two Constitutional Court rulings set to declare both the committee (this would have been the second time) and the Shura Council unconstitutional, Morsi made his 22 November unilateral “constitutional declaration,” placing himself above the law until the new constitution was passed, then hurrying through its passage, while doing nothing to stop the besieging of the Constitutional Court by pro-Muslim Brotherhood – if not Brotherhood affiliated – demonstrators, many of them armed.

Indeed it was during this period that the abnormal ties between the presidency, the state security apparatus, and the leadership of the Brotherhood generated new precedents in state supervised violence. Into the second week of protests at the president’s disregard for procedure, Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on their members to march to the site of the peaceful sit-in, outside the presidential palace, to “protect the legitimacy of the president.” They incited the use of violence against these protesters by denouncing them as a thuggish minority that was attacking the state. On 5 December, Brotherhood militias proceeded to ransack the campers’ tents, wounding and maiming anti-Morsi protesters, and evoking the surreal scenes of violence during the “battle of the camel” in Tahrir Square in February 2011, in pro-Mubarak forces on camel and horseback charged hundreds of protesters also targeted by police sniper fire. This time, however, journalists and eyewitnesses observed a new development in the collaboration: around the palace, senior police officers and self-appointed interrogators from the Brotherhood together detained at least forty-nine protesters, torturing them for specific confessions and reporting their names to the media.  

Poverty, Unemployment

Mubarak’s Egypt was the emblem of neoliberal reform, according to its International Monetary Fund supervisors, and as successive governments under his presidency privatized ever larger chunks of the public sector, they collectively celebrated Egypt’s rising growth figures. Meanwhile, as real wages did not rise – indeed the minimum wage had remained the same in Egypt for twenty-six years – the gap between rich and poor widened. By 2010-11, a quarter of the population was living under the poverty line, while a gutted welfare state and ailing health service must have caused thousands of undocumented deaths, still more than those claimed by Mubarak’s security state.

During these years, one of the major dimensions of the National Democratic Party’s struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood was economic – the two groups long shared a free market economic orientation and interests in the same corporations nationally and regionally. Thus, the Brothers were the ruling party’s rivals in business as well as politics. In a crony capitalist system, NDP magnates used their political clout to exclude their rivals from competition as much as possible.

It is no surprise then that the Brotherhood came to power with exactly the same economic vision as Mubarak had entrenched, and as the military council had preserved. Since Morsi’s election, Brotherhood elites have been selling old wine in new bottles, most infamously, that of the “Renaissance Project.” The butt of many jokes during Morsi’s first 100 days, the project has been criticized for propagating the same neoliberal formulae, but also for being remarkably vague in content and lacking a timetable for implementation. The absence of vision for economic change and certainly for social justice has been highlighted by the continued vilification of ongoing labor strikes, the attempt to raise taxes (soon reversed) in November 2012, and before that, Morsi’s early “campaign” on the environment, in which he exhorted citizens to pick up litter themselves, rather than phasing in a shakeup of procedures and revision of budgets in the relevant state ministries.

Most familiar of all has been Morsi’s acceptance of yet another deeply unpopular and sharply conditioned loan from the IMF, negotiated behind closed doors with no serious engagement with domestic stakeholders, although talks with the IMF have not been concluded. In August 2012, the Campaign to Drop Egypt’s Debt pointed out that Morsi had not explained how the measures adopted to secure the loan would differ from “the policies of impoverishment pursued by Hosni Mubarak for thirty years.” A letter to the IMF from representatives of Egyptian political parties, movements, syndicates and NGOs expressed disenchantment with the lack of transparency surrounding negotiations of the terms and conditions of the loan agreement. It noted that the talks had proceeded with Morsi holding full legislative powers, after the dissolution of parliament in June 2012: “Any agreement under these circumstances would contravene the democratic principle of separation of powers and Egypt’s longstanding constitutional requirement of parliamentary oversight over executive decisions.” The statements repeated concerns that the new loan would “represent a continuation of the old regime’s economic policies, particularly as they relate to the incursion of debt.”  

Foreign Policy

Closely related to this has been Morsi’s preservation of a foreign policy first introduced by the late President Anwar Sadat and carefully preserved by Mubarak. Its main pillars were always a pro-American orientation, the peace treaty with Israel, and regional alliance with conservative Gulf monarchies, with which Egypt helped enforce the US-sponsored regional balance of power. Under Morsi, the delegations of military and political elites shuttling between Cairo and Washington have not stopped, and the billions of dollars of American aid to Egypt have continued to be emphasized as conditional on pliant behavior. The Egyptian public has learned more about the Brotherhood’s longstanding dialogue with Washington, reportedly enhanced by the facilitation of Saad Eddin Ibrahim after a stint in prison, in which the Brotherhood have displayed a docility no less pronounced than that of their predecessor. Sure enough, when president Morsi seemed to break with Mubarak’s traditions by venturing to Iran, he did so only to invoke American stances on the Syrian uprising, and to sermonize against Iranian positions in turn, garnering praise in Washington.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s history of condemnations of Israel had led some to predict a change in the foreign ministry’s attitude to the border with Gaza and the Palestinian cause as a whole. As Hamas in Gaza had initially emerged as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was expected to be an inherently more positive interlocutor in Cairo. Instead, after the November 2012 Israeli assault on Gaza, Morsi went through the Mubarak motions and received the familiar praise. Specifically, he played the go-between, a role that Mubarak had officially fulfilled between Palestinian and Israeli parties since the signing of the Oslo Accords, and which saw him uniformly uphold the American preference for further Palestinian concessions. Morsi too took his cues from lengthy calls with Washington, and in this case also with NATO members in Ankara, after which he helped broker a truce, which saw Hamas pledge not to fire another bullet into Israel. Under Mubarak, many observed a pattern or a pact in which he would fulfill his role in ensuring “stability” in such negotiations, and in return, was granted considerable freedom to dominate politics at home by his American patrons. In similar style, Morsi was seen to trade his handiwork over Gaza in 2012 for an American blind eye to the undemocratic constitutional campaign he launched almost instantly afterwards. In the final analysis, then, Morsi may have delivered a fiery speech and sent his prime minister to Gaza, but his conduct throughout differed only in form and not in substance from that of Mubarak.

Similarly, Morsi has been seen to continue Mubarak’s privileging of top security officials in the management of Egyptian foreign policy priorities, and in the running of relations with security interlocutors over the border or in Washington. Indeed, Morsi has continued Mubarak’s toeing of the line on restrictions on Egypt’s military presence in Sinai, despite the eruption of armed attacks on its soldiers on the border by unknown assailants. In October 2012 Morsi even sent a letter to the Israeli president Shimon Peres, reportedly starting with “My dear, great friend,” which was alternately condemned and mocked across the political spectrum, and even caused one Brotherhood member to resign. The tacit message seems to have gone out to the Brotherhood base that dealing and normalizing with Israel for now represents a “necessary evil,” while the primary goal of consolidating power is still in progress.

Illegitimate Process

In recent months, the Brotherhood and state media – and western outlets as varied as the Washington Post and the Guardian – have continued to repeat the mantra of the “democratically elected president” and the “democratic transition” period. 6 April activist Ahmad Maher expressed an increasingly prevalent viewpoint, however, when he made the following comment on the footage of Ahmad Saber: “Morsi has been stripped bare and has lost his legitimacy.”

What western opinion shapers ignored is that Morsi’s legitimacy was already thin, due to a transitional process that was itself deeply flawed. Indeed the revolution gained momentum precisely as the Brotherhood leadership attempted to complete its final stage, namely the writing of a new constitution. The shaping of the process has been non-participatory, non-transparent, and non-inclusive throughout, scripted and dominated initially by the military council, and later by the Muslim Brotherhood after their electoral victories. The transitional process began under SCAF by abbreviating the ambitions of the revolutionary movement into a few constitutional amendments in March 2011, drafted by a committee handpicked to privilege conservative and Islamist political voices. There followed the generals’ progressively more violent crackdowns and bullying of the revolutionary groups, and their evident bias towards Islamist politicians in the public sphere and media, and ultimately in the 2011-12 parliamentary elections.

As the revolution’s first anniversary came and went, promises by the Brotherhood not to field the requisite number of candidates, not to field a presidential candidate, and not to then dominate the constituent assembly, faded in turn, although protests and the administrative court put up some hefty resistance to the latter in April 2012. The FJP made neither its finances, nor the precise nature of its links and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, transparent. Throughout each of these electoral campaigns and runoffs, places of worship were used for campaigning, religious arguments were marshaled in support of Morsi, and official monitors reported considerable electoral violations, including vote buying and ballot box stuffing. For many, the inclusion of Mubarak’s last prime minister in the race, General Ahmad Shafiq, rendered both rounds invalid regardless of procedure, and prompted many to boycott the vote. Finally, as the race drew to a close, the repeated delay of the results was widely understood to have allowed for a deal to be hammered out between the anointed victor and the generals, guaranteeing their own privileges in the new order. Meanwhile, thousands of Brotherhood supporters occupied Tahrir Square and threatened to wreak havoc if their candidate was not crowned. The product of all these less-than-democratic procedures was president Mohamed Morsi.

Lessons Learned, Destinies Shared?

A very different president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, popularized a famous phrase that is often repeated by young protesters today: the people are the leader and the teacher (“al-sha‘ab howa al qa’ed wal mo‘alem”). Indeed many lessons have been learned, some perhaps slowly, by all generations in the revolutionary movement, and of course by the forces arrayed against them. It would seem at this moment that the former are learning difficult lessons about political organization, about balancing between coalition formation and political demands, and most importantly, about keeping in step as the people lead. As night fell on 2 February 2013, the revolution’s latest coalition, the National Salvation Front, announced its endorsement of popular demands for the toppling of Mohamed Morsi, but as the days passed, this was downplayed in relatively more conservative statements, but invoked again ahead of protests called for 11 February. This has exposed a generation gap in political horizons and methods, as the youth of the Front’s constituent parties and movements have appeared consistently closer to the spirit, and the leadership, of “the street.”

Meanwhile, on the part of the presidency, government, and many in the state apparatus, the simple lessons of Mubarak’s downfall have not been learned. These were, among others, that securitized responses to popular mobilization is not only deadly but also counterproductive and futile, that citizens of all persuasions respond to inclusive, deliberative political process, and that seeking to monopolize power at the expense of the majority is no longer viable nor to be tolerated. Instead, Morsi is ruling through Mubarak’s state, and adjusting it to size – with its unreformed security sector, its privileged military elites, and its new band of bureaucrats and mouthpieces. This is ensuring the regeneration of the whole gamut of injustices of the Mubarak’s regime: state-sponsored violence, corruption, and the absence of meaningful political, economic, and social rights.

If events under Morsi have illustrated anything, it is that a revolutionary process has been gathering momentum against several poles of state policy well before the current moment, and that this cannot and has not been resolved through formal political channels devoid of substance. This revolutionary process may have enjoyed a peak but by no means a conclusion on 11 February 2011 – its eighteen days merely brought many millions more to the fold, and deeply politicized a new generation. These Egyptians have diagnosed their new president’s condition, and are intent on bringing him to a familiar fate.




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