Mohammad Mursi’s Dangerous Gamble and the Withering of Democracy in Egypt?

by Joshua Tucker on September 13, 2012 · 1 comment

in Comparative Politics,Protest,Violence

The following is a guest post by Princeton political scientist Amaney Jamal, the author of Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All?

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A 14 minute amateurish youtube video disparaging the Prophet Mohammad has led to rather hysterical riots in both Libya and Egypt. While we’re told that the riots in Benghazi—which led to the senseless killing of US Ambassador  Chris Stevens and four foreign service officers—were organized by a group linked to al-Qaeda operating in Eastern Libya—the riots in Egypt appear to be driven by an outraged citizenry.

Notably, while the Libyan government has condemned the attacks (indeed, several Libyans tried to fight back the terrorists alongside the Americans) Mohammad Mursi seems to be dancing a dangerous solo act. Here’s a newly elected president with a slight majority of the Egyptian popular vote standing between two dominant powers: on one side the Egyptian Military Council, which still enjoys significant popular legitimacy (as witnessed by Ahmad Shafiq’s impressive electoral performance in June); and the US, which continues to subsidize the Egyptian government, military, and—with loan packages like the pending 4.8 billion IMF loan—the future prospects of the entire Egyptian economy as well.

Mohammad Mursi has sanctioned peaceful protests at the US Embassy. On his facebook page, he in fact criticized the amateurish youtube video and defended the protesters by saying:

The presidency condemns in the strongest terms the attempt of a group to insult the place of the Messenger, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and condemns the people who have produced this radical work.

The condemnation illustrates Mursi’s delicate balancing act. He’s trying to win support from his own constituency while trying (somewhat) not to completely infuriate the US and Egyptian military. Yet, there’s another constituency that Mursi must not ignore: the very citizens outside his constituency who gave him the opportunity to lead.  Many in Egypt see the US role in the future of Egypt as absolutely critical to the development of that country. Despite a strong current of anti-Americanism — only 19% of Egyptians have a positive opinion of the US - many in Egypt, especially those that stand to benefit from greater links to globalization, are worried that weaker ties between the US and Egypt could result in further deterioration of existing economic conditions. That’s why when asked about future relations between Egypt and the US—55% of Egyptians would like relations to stay the same as before Mubarak’s overthrow (35%) or grow even stronger than that (20%). [1]

Citizens are thus monitoring Mursi’s government with a careful eye. Will the Muslim Brotherhood act recklessly?  What about the peace treaty with Israel?  Will the Muslim Brotherhood upset the region’s chief patron, the US? What would then become of the economic and military assistance that the country vitally depends on? Worse, will Egypt risk alienation and sanctions if the Muslim Brotherhood disrupts the “stable” status quo in the region?[2]

The future course of Egyptian democratization will therefore be influenced by the perception of American reactions to current political developments. And these reactions will largely be shaped by levels of anti-Americanism. If anti-Americanism increases, I anticipate a tumultuous process of democratization, as increasing number of citizens will worry about alienating the United States and be tempted to seek “authoritarian” protections. If Mursi keeps flirting with anti-Americanism he won’t just lose the United States; he will lose Egyptians too.



[1] See Pew Research Center Report. One Year Later, Egyptian Embrace Democracy, Islam in Political Life. May 8, 2012.


[2] These are the central themes captured in my new Princeton University Press book: Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All?


{ 1 comment }

Jason September 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

I think this piece underestimates the allure of the anti-American message in Egypt. As the author notes, the Egyptian economy as well as its military are hugely dependent on foreign aid, specifically from the United States. If Tucker’s argument here is that recognition of this dependence will result in restraint from an Egyptian majority, it begs the question of why this has not happened already. To me, the difference in percentages between Egyptians who have a positive opinion of the US and those who want strong ties shows that Egyptians do not see the two views as conflicting. Either they are not willing to sacrifice their hatred to maintain such ties, or they do not believe that expressing their hatred will endanger those ties.

The Muslim Brotherhood (among others) gains power by arousing powerful religious sentiment. Powerful religious sentiment is not persuaded by logic, nor does it make deals or consider long-term repercussions. To the extent that Muslims in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East remain in thrall to violent religious leaders, their economic and national security interests vis-a-vis the US will remain a peripheral concern.

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