In recent weeks, the international outcry that followed the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi serves to confirm how fundamental the lie that Morsi was democratically elected has become in our perception of the Egyptian government. This oft-repeated inaccuracy is entirely unfounded in facts, and it is imperative that we understand what it actually means to be duly elected.
This fact is made all the more important with the backdrop of the manic attempts to avoid calling the military overthrow a “coup” in the debate over Section 7008 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012; it provides, in part, that funds shall not be made available to the government of a country whose “duly elected head of government,” is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree.
After Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former 30-year ruler, was forced to resign by nationwide protests in the most populous Arab country, the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamic group notorious for its role in the creation of Hamas and participation in myriad oppressive regimes, eventually emerged as the leading party in the new Egyptian government. Yet hailing Morsi as the democratically elected representative of the Egyptian people appears to be based on a rather loose understanding of “democracy.”
The Brotherhood has been accused of bribing and intimidating voters and rigging ballots during the 2012 elections. The election suffered from abysmally poor voter turnout (43.4% of registered voters), which is especially troubling given the ostensibly historic nature of the race. Out of 23 million voters in the first round of elections, 12 million did not vote for either of the two candidates ultimately placed in the run-off vote. Capping this all off was a blatant power grab from the military, which changed the constitution mid-election to limit the power of the newly elected President.
Once in power, Morsi acted increasingly autocratically, visiting vengeance upon political opponents and cracking down on civil liberties; for example, the sentencing to prison of 43 NGO workers, eventually culminating in his notorious decree on November 22 that prohibited Egypt’s courts from challenging any laws passed since he assumed office. Although Morsi was eventually forced to annul this decree, the Constitution he signed into law in December 2012 nevertheless represented a significant increase in the Muslim Brotherhood’s autocratic powers.
The new Constitution strengthened the explicit ties between Islam and the Egyptian state. Article 2 proclaims Islam as the state religion of Egypt and endorses Sharia Law as the main source of legislation (specifically modeled on Sunni principles per Article 219); Article 44 prohibits the insulting of religious prophets; and Article 81 prohibits the exercise of rights and freedoms that conflict with the principles “pertaining to State and society included in Part I of this Constitution,” effectively imposing Sharia law.
Such provisions limiting the freedom of expression and implicitly expressing disfavor for minority religious groups indicate a disturbing turn towards a form of theocracy in Egyptian civil society. The liberty to express minority views, worship freely and equally, and advocate for political change are bedrock rights that must be guaranteed in a democratic state and cannot be sacrificed to the predilections of the ruling party.
The result of this union of Sharia law and state institutions was widespread and brutal assaults against Christian Coptic communities. Christians constitute approximately ten percent of the Egyptian population, and yet from the start of the election process to Morsi’s ouster, they were subject to a policy of systemic, ruthless, and violent discrimination.
The Muslim Brotherhood is reported to have intimidated and threatened Christians during the 2012 presidential election in order to prevent them from voting, a massive infringement of their enfranchisement rights. Morsi installed a former leader of Gamaa Islamiya, responsible for the attacks that killed 62 tourists and civilians at Luxor, as the Governor of Luxor. Persecution extended to severe physical intimidation and abuse as well. Around one hundred families were forced to flee Dahshour last August after violent clashes with the local Muslim community, while in April, St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope, was attacked by a mob of Muslims (which included government troops) who killed one person and injured at least 84 others.
In 2012, radical Salafists, with whom Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood formed political alliances, called for Muslims to shun Christians during Christmas. Perhaps most shockingly of all, in January 2013, an Egyptian court sentenced a mother and her seven children to fifteen years in prison for the crime of converting to Christianity. Such treatment was an escalation of the tensions in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt that have now reached epidemic proportions thanks to Morsi’s efforts.
Following the removal of Morsi from office, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a call for an intifada, or national (and generally violent) uprising. In response, violence against Christians has continued in the spirit of restoring an Islamist government.
Towns such as Rafah and Sheikh Zowayd have been entirely stripped of their Christian populations, as local Christians flee the atmosphere of repression. The town of Sheikh Zowayd is also the location in which a decapitated Christian merchant’s body was found. More than one hundred Christian families deserted El Arish after receiving death threats from Islamist groups, and Coptic churches in the northern Sinai have canceled all services except Friday Mass. The Christian village of Dabaya was host to a vicious assault by a group of armed men who burnt 23 houses and killed four people. This climate of fear pervading through Egypt is a serious and genuine threat to Christians’ right to worship and, in many cases, right to life.
In no way can an objective analysis of the activities of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood before, during, and after their time in power define Morsi as a democratically and duly elected president who respects and upholds the principles of a liberal democracy. We must ask ourselves why we allowed Morsi to convince the world he was a legitimate representative of the Egyptian people. The attacks against Christians in the post-Morsi era have engendered international outrage, and rightly so, but the question remains: why was Christian persecution while Morsi was in power ignored as a symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood’s undemocratic values?
Morsi attempted to transform Egypt into a theocracy, enshrining religious law into the constitution and creating a repressive society that enforced conformity and quiescence in line with the Muslim Brotherhood’s militant form of Islam. Such a move conflated offenses against the State with offenses against God, contrary to the idea that a tolerant society has to refrain from criminalizing irreligiousness as a proxy for illegality. This is incompatible with the principles of a liberal democracy.
The mainstream media and U.S. government were too willing to push the fallacy that Egypt during Morsi’s rule fulfilled the requirements pursuant to these principles. We do ourselves an injustice to act appalled at the treatment of Christians only in the post-Morsi violence. We delude ourselves when we blindly accept the Arab Spring as an uncomplicated turn toward democracy in the Middle East. We make a mockery of our own system when we strain the English language in our eagerness to say that it was not a coup and that Morsi was duly elected.
It is a black mark against our democratic principles that the systematic oppression of Christians in Egypt only merits our attention when attached to a newsworthy violent uprising. In the storm of appraisal that accompanied Egyptian civilians’ struggle towards exercising their democratic rights, we have ignored the consistent and insidious erosion of those very rights. It is time thoroughly to question those in the West who described Morsi’s regime as a nascent democracy in Egypt.
Josh Goodman studies Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a Student Fellow at The Lawfare Project.
James Parks is a 2L at Columbia Law School and is a Student Fellow at The Lawfare Project, a New York based legal think tank.