Building on decades of leadership in the Arab world, Egypt is undergoing major governmental transformation in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Presidential and parliamentary elections in recent years have served to stabilise the country politically, reforming the constitution and the responsibilities and scope of Egypt’s leading institutions. Albeit far from completed and still contending with domestic discourse, the changes have been a welcome effort in setting Egypt back on course.
Egypt’s history as a unified state dates back to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3200 BCE, making this one of the oldest civilisations on earth. Located at the mouth of the Nile River along the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and Asia, Egypt’s location drove the rise of one great civilization after another. Alexander the Great founded the historical port of Alexandria in 332 BCE, and in 642 BCE the Arab Conquest established the country as part of the Islamic World. A succession of Muslims dynasties followed, including the Abbasid, Fatimid and Mamluks. The Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, and modern Egypt’s history began with the rule of Ottoman general Muhammad Ali, a modernising ruler. Under Muhammad Ali, Egypt saw significant expansion of its infrastructure and establishment of a modern army.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was able to shake the last of its foreign rule by the British, and nationalism became an important driver of politics. Independence came with the Free Officers’ Coup, or Egyptian Revolution on July 23, 1952. The revolution, led by young nationalist army officers, deposed Muhammad Ali’s great-grandson King Farouk, who had been supported by Britain.
In 1954 Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers, came to power. Nasser was a revolutionary figure in both Egypt and the wider region. He became a popular figure for his assertion of Arab nationalism and economic policies, which included redistributing land to the lahin (peasants) and rapid industrialisation, in part through the nationalisation of major industries. One of Nasser’s greatest legacies was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, securing the strategically vital waterway and its revenues for Egypt.
Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, another member of the Free Officers. After Nasser’s socialist approach, and pugnacious stance towards the West, Sadat took a different course. He introduced the policy of or “open door”, encouraging private and foreign investment. This approach is still followed today, though a degree of Nasserist socialism remains in public administration and parts of the economy.
In foreign policy, Sadat signed the landmark Camp David Accords in 1978, followed in March 1979 by a peace treaty with Israel. The agreements, brokered by the US, led the countries to mutual recognition, and ended the de jure state of war that had persisted since 1948. Many saw the normalisation of Egypt’s relations with its neighbour as a necessary and strategic step, although it remains controversial. The controversy over the agreement was followed by Sadat’s assassination by an Islamic extremist in October 1981.
Mubarak & The Arab Spring
Sadat was succeeded by his vice-president Hosni Mubarak, former head of the Egyptian Air Force. Mubarak maintained Sadat’s liberal economic approach and cordial relations with the West, particularly the US, but also the EU, an increasingly important trading partner for Egypt. Economic growth strengthened in the early years of the 21st century as Egypt’s potential as one of the world’s most important emerging markets reasserted itself, and foreign investment was promoted. While the global economic crisis in 2008 slowed growth, Egypt avoided recession. Mubarak’s rule also saw clashes with Islamist militants and terrorist outrages, but until his final years, he was seen as a figure of stability.
Despite the growth of the middle class, poverty and unemployment remained stubbornly high under Mubarak, and Egypt’s cities became overcrowded as the housing stock failed to keep pace with population growth. Allegations of corruption and authoritarianism swelled in tandem.
One January 25, 2011 public disillusionment erupted in demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, inspired by Tunisia’s uprising that started the Arab Spring weeks prior. The protests in Egypt gained support of a wide spectrum of society and continued until Mubarak’s resignation on February 11. Mubarak was replaced with a transitional government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who oversaw transition to civilian rule.
In November 2011, Egypt held what were widely considered to be the first free and fair elections in its history for the lower house of its bicameral legislature, the House of Representatives. The election concluded in a high margin for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which took 43% of the vote. The FJP was linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928, and banned under Mubarak. The conservative Salafist Al Nour party came in second, and a range of smaller secular parties also entered the parliament. In February 2012 the FJP followed with a second victory in elections to the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. However, the FJP’s popularity was far from overwhelming, and its candidate Mohamed Morsi beat Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister, by a narrow margin of just 51% to 49% in the second round of the presidential elections in June 2012.
Morsi’s rule was characterised by fractious relations with secularists and the armed forces, who remained influential. A major point of contention was over the new constitution, which many believe had been influenced by Islamist leaders. Morsi’s decision to issue a constitutional declaration giving himself greater powers was another cause of discontent, particularly given that some had hoped for a transition to a parliamentary system.
Morsi was deposed by the military on July 3, 2013, following widespread street protests against the president and the constitution, which was itself suspended. Slowly, a degree of stability returned under interim President Adly Mansour. The new government received substantial financial support from neighbouring allies, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Libya, some of which had been sceptical of Morsi’s rule.
Morsi’s constitution scrapped, commissioners returned to draft a new constitution based on the previous one of 1971. This was overwhelmingly approved in referendum in January 2014. The new constitution allows presidents to have up to two four-year terms, and gives parliament the right to impeach the head of state. It guarantees equality of sex and freedom of belief, while affirming Islam as the state religion. Emphasising stability and unity state, it bans political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, and strengthens the role of the army, police and judiciary.
In March 2014, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who had led the removal of Morsi, announced that he was stepping down from the military to stand in presidential elections. Building on support across the political spectrum, Sisi emphasised stability, while also appealing to religious conservatives through his own faith. Sisi won the May 2014 election against the leftist opponent Hamdeen Sabahi by a landslide, taking nearly 97% of the vote on a turnout of 47.5%, though some parties boycotted the poll.
Sisi’s first year and a half in power saw economic growth, strengthening investor confidence and ties with a range of partners from around the world. The IMF estimates that growth accelerated to 4.2% in 2015 from 2.2% in 2014, and will pick up to 4.3% in 2016 and then 5% by 2020. While this represents a significant recovery from the post-revolution years, the rate may need to be even higher to generate jobs for Egypt’s growing population.
One strategy to boost growth is the development of the Suez Canal area as an industry and logistics centre with global reach. In August 2015 Sisi inaugurated an $8bn extension to the canal after just 12 months of construction. The “New Suez Canal” includes 35 km of new channels, as well as a 37-km stretch where the existing canal was enlarged to accommodate larger ships. In December 2015 the government announced an upcoming inauguration of another mega-project, a massive desert reclamation project with the aim of expanding Egypt’s farmland area by 20%. The reclamation programme would add 1.5 feddans (630,000 ha), expanding the total amount of farmland to 9.5 feddans. The plan is intended to make Egypt more self-sufficient in food, and increase habitable areas. The project will start with an area of the Western Desert, which will be used to farm crops such as wheat and corn.
The government’s position was further secured following elections held between October and December 2015. In the first two rounds of voting, the pro-Sisi political alliance “For the Love of Egypt”, took all 120 seats allocated on a “winner-take-all” basis in the 568-member parliament. Allocation of the remaining 448 seats – elected on an individual basis – was determined in a subsequent round of elections in mid-December. Of these, 57% of parliamentary seats went to independents, with the remainder going to candidates with party affiliations. The leading parties included the secular Free Egyptians Party, the Nation’s Future Party and the liberal secular Wafd Party, all members of the For the Love of Egypt coalition. The Salafist Nour Party held its own.
Egypt’s governmental system is separated into three branches. The executive branch is led by the president, who serves as the head of state. The president is elected via a secret ballot and requires a clear popular majority to be voted into office. The president appoints a prime minister, who then must be approved by a majority vote by the House of Representatives within 30 days. If the House does not approve the president’s nominee, the president must reappoint a prime minister nominated by the majority party in the House of Representatives. If both the president and the majority party in the House are the same, the president is empowered to directly appoint the ministers of defence, interior, justice and foreign affairs. The prime minister is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the government’s work through his or her deputies and other government ministers, specifically in the drafting of policies and budgets.
Parliament is made up of the Shura Council (upper house) and the directly elected House of Representatives (lower house). The parliament is charged with enacting legislation and approving the general, economic and social policies of the executive branch, including state budgets and the ratification of any treaties. The judiciary operates as an independent branch of government, subject only to the law and no other authority. Egypt’s judicial hierarchy includes six types of courts, including the Court of Limited Jurisdiction, the Court of First Instance, the Court of Appeals, the Court of Cassation, and the Supreme Constitutional Court.
While 2015 was characterised by greater political stability and growth, Egypt still faces challenges. Creating jobs and building homes for its growing population and improving living standards for the poorest are among the most pressing, and closely linked to stability in the long term. Despite having been one of the major countries of the Arab Spring, Egypt has avoided the disintegration and civil conflict that has affected Syria, Libya and Yemen. Nonetheless, the government remains vigilant of potential spillover risks from regional instability. Refugees from these conflicts have been welcomed in Egypt, putting further pressure on the infrastructure. The security forces continue to battle an extremist presence in some parts of the country, including the Sinai Peninsula.
All in all, Egypt is better placed to handle these challenges than it has been for some time. It enjoys the strong support of a range of international partners from the West, Middle East and Asia, as well as Russia. It has a large domestic market, a diversified economy and an enviable geostrategic position, marking the country as important as it ever was.