Boston University

Polarization and Executive Aggrandizement in Egypt by Michaela Kollin @ Boston University

In his article in the Journal of Democracy, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Larry Diamond describes a hybrid regime as a regime that exists in countries that have democratic elections but not civil liberties (Diamond 27). Egypt is the type of hybrid regime that Diamond mentions. It has elections that it holds every two years, but it also uses these legal loopholes in order to impose greater restrictions on its citizens. Egypt uses constant, almost never-ending states of emergency to give the government and executive a legal cover for aggrandizing their powers. Egypt was under constant emergency law from 1967 to 2012, with an eighteen month break in 1980 and ‘81 (CNN). After Arab Spring, Egypt drafted a new constitution that was meant to limit this by forcing parliament to approve states of emergency before they could be passed, but the Egyptian parliament still always passed it, often drafting legislation to approve new states of emergency before the old legislation had expired. These states of emergency give the government and security state much more power, including the power to try civilians in military court if they commit crimes on public property that the military is “protecting” (Brown and El-Sadany). Even after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president of thirty years, Egypt has had problems with executive aggrandizement and human rights violations. As Gibler and Randazzo argue in “Testing the Effects of Independent Judiciaries on the Likelihood of Democratic Backsliding,” crises provide opportunities for executives to aggrandize their authoritarian power under the guise of taking steps to more effectively respond to crises (Gibler and Randazzo 700). The political polarization and instability that Egypt has experienced post-Arab Spring has provided no shortage of crises, leading both democratically elected presidents to take advantage of these volatile situations to increase their own power and punish the opposition.  

After he came to power, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, drew up a constitution that decreed his decisions couldn’t be challenged by the courts and that Egypt’s Constituent Assembly can’t be dissolved. He fired the Public Prosecutor and allowed for new criminal investigations of people who’d been acquitted. He also enacted a new law allowing for a six-month pre-trial detention period for press and media offenses, strikes, protests and “thuggery” (Human Rights Watch). In 2012 and 2013, protests erupted and the police and security forces attempted to suppress them with tear gas, and other forms of sometimes deadly violence (Amnesty International). He was later ousted in a military coup, the leader of which, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, later ran for president, winning with 97% of the vote (BBC). Between the time Morsi was ousted and el-Sisi won the election, the el-Sisi-led military assisted the national police in dispersing two sit-ins held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the previous president, Morsi. This led to the deaths of nearly six hundred peaceful protesters (Kirkpatrick). During this time, the interim government also removed limits on detention without trial for certain crimes. It also banned protests, arresting thousand of Egyptians under this new law and sentenced 529 members of the Muslim brotherhood to death (Kingsley). BBC claims that by May 2016, nearly 40,000 people, mostly Brotherhood members or loyalists have been imprisoned since Morsi was overthrown (BBC News).  While in office, el-Sisi has issued more than 175 laws and decrees between the time when he first office in June 2014 and 2015, when this article was written. The government had also repeatedly postponed elections for a new government. Once in office, the new parliament will only have 15 days after its first session to review and amend all legislation passed in its absence before that legislation becomes final. Since Morsi was overthrown by the military, the government has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands of members and sentencing hundreds to death. (Human Rights Watch).

Human Rights Watch argues that the Egyptian government’s 2015 counter-terrorism law is so broad that it could potentially include civil disobedience. Punishments for violating this law include the death penalty. There is also less judicial oversight of prosecutors, allowing them to detain suspects without judicial review and order wide ranging and potentially indefinite surveillance of people suspected of terrorism without a court order. The law criminalizes publishing or promoting news about terrorism if it contradicts the statements the defense ministry has made. It would allow the courts to temporarily ban journalists from publishing their writing for doing this. It also punishes people who agreed to a crime publicly or privately with the punishment they would have received if they’d committed that crime. There are now stiff penalties for incitement or propagating ideas that advocates what Egypt defines as terrorism, potentially criminalizing private expressions of government opposition. It is also a crime to belong to a group the Egyptian government defines as a terrorist group. The UN generally urges that counterterrorism laws only criminalize public incitement of terrorism, not private, ineffectual incitement or threats to disrupt general order, which can and has included civil disobedience. Egyptian authorities have prosecuted Muslim Brotherhood members on terrorism charges for engaging in sit-ins or blocking roads during protests (Human Rights Watch).

Some of the authoritarianism demonstrated by the democratically elected Morsi and el-Sisi seem to be due to polarization between the Muslim Brotherhood and its loyalists, who supported Morsi, and el-Sisi’s supporters, who hated Morsi. Both arguably infringed upon civil liberties. Due to this us-vs-them mentality. Liliana Mason describes in American Journal of Political Science, the social polarization and issue sorting that divides two groups and changes the behavior of their members (Mason 129). In Egypt, this polarization and sorting encourages leaders at the opposite ends of these poles to go to extreme measures in order to help out the people who they view as members of their in-group and mercilessly punish those who do not belong to it.

Works Cited

Brown, Nathan J and El-Sadany, Mai. “How a State of Emergency Became Egypt’s New Normal.” The Washington Post. October 30, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2017.

CNN Wire Staff  “Egypt Lifts Unpopular Emergency Law.” CNN. 2 June 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2017.

Diamond, Larry. 2002. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 13(2): pp. 21-35.

“Egypt: Counterterrorism Law Erodes Basic Rights.” Human Rights Watch. August 19, 2015. Retrieved 30 October 2017.

Egypt Crackdown Widens With Arrest of Leading Rights Lawyer.” BBC News. May 6 2016.

“Egypt Election: Sisi Secures Landslide Win”. BBC. May 29 2014. Retrieved November 4 2017.

Gibler, Douglas & Kirk Randazzo. “Testing the Effects of Independent Judiciaries on the Likelihood of Democratic Backsliding.” American Journal of Political Science 55(3): pp. 696–709. 2011.

Kingsley, Patrick “Worse Than The Dictators: Egypt’s Leaders Bring Pillars of Freedom Crashing Down.” The Guardian. December 26, 2014. Retrieved November 4, 2017.

Kirkpatrick, David D. “Islamists Debate Their Next Move in Tense Cairo.” The New York Times. 19 August 2013. Retrieved November 4, 2017.

Mason, Lilliana. 2015. “‘I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59(1): pp. 128-145.

“”Sisi After the Coup.” Creative Commons License”

“Tea and Tear Gas in Tahrir Square.” Amnesty International. November 19, 2012. Retrieved November 4, 2017.



  1. Laura Stavinsky

    December 4, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Having studied Egypt in another class this semester, I think you gave a really good overview of a lot of the problems plaguing Egypt currently and their historical roots. I thought it was interesting how you said that states of emergency give the government and military more power. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I am curious what you think about the legitimacy of regimes who are constantly in states of emergency. While the government may be “allowed” to impose strict rules and restrictions on citizens during these periods, do you think states of emergency have an overall positive or negative net gain for the government in power? If a country is always in a state of emergency, does this give citizens more precedent to question the legitimacy of a regime and their ability to rule? And if so, can the rules imposed during a state of emergency effectively repress opposition movements that spring up due to a crisis of legitimacy?

  2. Amalia Perez

    December 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Your emphasis on states of emergency as carte blanche decrees for presidential overreach is apt and well-taken. There is another country who has been in a near perpetual state of emergency for the last 40 years, with approx 27-30 simultaneous states of emergency today: The United States. How does the U.S. government get away with wanton decrees of states of emergency — each one offering a legal route to a more aggrandized executive — while Egypt’s elicit far more attention and condemnation? I’d argue that it is because the ramifications of the U.S.’s overreach in states of emergency infringes upon insidious, structural rights and protections, while Egpyt is infringing upon flagrant, physical rights and protections.

    Patrick Thornson recently published a report in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform listing the 160 authorities given to a president during states of emergency. These include suspending environmental laws, bypassing federal contracting laws, and allowing unlimited secret patents for Army, Navy, and Air Force scientists. Jimmy Carters’ declaration of a state of emergency in 1979 on the 10th day of the Iran Hostage Crisis remains effective today. It allows, amongst other ramifications, for the legal persecution of Mohamed Nazemzadeh, a researcher at the University of Michigan who tried to sell life-saving, cancer-curing medicine to Iran.

    The Egyptian governments crack-down on civilians and their civil liberties is a violent move with unparalleled consequences for Egyptians and the state of their democracy. The U.S.’s exploitation of states of emergency, though, similarly infringes upon democracy by suspending checks and balances on executive overreach. What’s worse: both countries are getting away with it.

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