Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat?

In the months leading up to Egypt’s military coup on July 3, 2013, it became common to hear some variation of the following: President Mohammed Morsi was a new pharaoh, a dictator in the making, or a purveyor of a new, dangerous kind of fascism. Morsi, who was elected after the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, was undoubtedly incompetent and failed to govern inclusively. Yes, he was the wrong man at the wrong time, but was he really an autocrat? Or, put differently, was his one year of rule patently “undemocratic,” as so many Egyptian and even Western analysts claimed?

This might appear to be an academic question. But, to understand how Egypt got to where it is now—in the grip of strongman politics, military domination, and seemingly unyielding repression—it is critical to understand what did, or did not, come before. After all, if Morsi was, indeed, some kind of autocrat—and if a democratic transition was no longer democratic—then some kind of corrective measure, however painful, could be justified or at least explained away as inevitable. But it also matters for how we understand the process of democratization in deeply divided societies. What can, and should, we expect? Was Egypt, or Morsi, somehow unique in the broader sweep of political change after revolutions or uprisings?

The only way to answer these questions is to look not at how Morsi’s rule measured up against the hopes of revolutionaries, or our own, but to establish an empirical baseline around clear political benchmarks. What exactly happened during other transitions in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia?

To answer this question, we scored Morsi’s year in office according to the Polity IV index, one of the most widely used empirical measures of autocracy and democracy. We chose to score according to Polity not only because of its wide use in political-science literature but also because it is sensitive enough to register year-to-year changes. The index measures three key indicators of democracy: executive recruitment (whether a leader is elected or appointed), constraints on the executive, and the openness of political participation. Because the Polity IV index characterizes Morsi’s term as a “societal transition,” we then scored a random stratified sample of 32 other countries in that category. Since many countries underwent multi-year transitions, we scored a total of 70 country-years. As a separate check of our findings, we then compared Egypt under Morsi with three additional categories in the Polity dataset: “positive regime change,” “minor democratic transition,” and “major democratic transition.” These categories include almost 400 additional country-years that are already scored by Polity.

Morsi was no Mandela, but he was no autocrat, either. The Polity index is scored from -10 to 10, with negative values representing more autocratic regimes and positive values representing more democratic regimes. The most charitable reading of Morsi’s tenure—the upper bound of our score—was a 4. However, we think the most accurate score—drawing not just on the letter of Polity’s coding guidance, but also the spirit—is a 2. In real terms, this means that Morsi’s year in office was anocratic—that is, it was democratic in some ways and autocratic in others. Morsi was democratically elected and subject to meaningful institutional and popular constraints. When he edged toward autocracy in November 2012 and made his decrees exempt from review, widespread protests forced him to backtrack. The Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood showed favoritism toward Islamist-aligned groups, harassed or threatened prominent opposition voices, and detained secular activists such as Ahmed Maher. However, unlike the current military-backed government, it did not systematically repress and imprison opponents. Moreover, Morsi’s winner-takes-all majoritarianism was counterbalanced by what Nathan Brown calls the “wide state,” including the military and security establishments, a powerful judiciary, and business elites.

So how did Morsi stack up against the competition? The average score for countries in the midst of a “positive regime change” or “democratic transition” is a 2.18. More relevant here are regimes in “societal transition,” which scored, on average, three points lower than Morsi did, with a mean value of -0.97. Societal transitions encompass some of the most volatile moments in a country’s history, during which not only elites but ordinary citizens are caught up in political and social turmoil. Our sample can be divided into four quartiles: democracies, democratic-leaning anocracies, autocratic-leaning anocracies, and autocracies. Democratic-leaning anocracies, the category into which Morsi’s year in office falls, are a common form of governance during societal transitions. When Secretary of State John Kerry argued in August 2013 that the Egyptian military coup was “restoring democracy” to the country, he ignored the fact that Egypt under Morsi was undergoing a remarkably ordinary transition, neither wholly autocratic nor wholly democratic, falling almost exactly at the mean value of political transitions globally.

What kind of democracy did Egypt’s military-appointed government restore? The new regime, in the months after the coup, would have scored a -4, a six-point slide toward autocracy. Unlike Morsi or even former strongmen Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, the military government has presided over mass arrests of political opponents as well as mass killings, including the August 14, 2013 crackdown on Morsi supporters that left hundreds dead. A law effectively banning opposition protests is also worth noting here, as is security forces’ consistent use of lethal force against demonstrators. On the “competitiveness of participation” variable, Egypt under the military government would be coded as “suppressed,” which means that the regime “systematically and sharply limits [the] form, extent, or both [of competition] in ways that exclude substantial groups from participation…. As an operational rule, the banning of a political party which received more than 10 percent of the vote in a recent national election is sufficient evidence that competition is ‘suppressed.’” In today’s Egypt, there is competition within the regime’s own political coalition, but anything beyond that is simply not permitted.

In fact, the six-point drop in Egypt’s Polity score is likely an underestimation of the real magnitude of difference between the two governments. Because Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief who just declared his candidacy for the presidency, has not yet formally consolidated power through regularized elections or a closed selection process among Egyptian elite, his “executive recruitment” sub-score is slightly inflated. If this type of consolidation occurs—as is widely expected—we can expect Egypt’s Polity score to drop to a -6 or -7, which would reflect an 8-point drop from Morsi’s tenure in power.

The literature on societal transitions calls into question a core assumption of the United States’ posture toward democracy in Egypt. By intimating that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had, in some way, hijacked Egypt’s political process, the United States, in the crucial weeks after the July coup, effectively legitimated the logic that the coup was necessary in order to salvage Egyptian democracy. As we have shown, Morsi’s year in office was more democratic than his critics allege, and the military-backed government that seized power in the coup is significantly more autocratic than Morsi ever was.

Of course, the repressive nature of post-coup Egyptian politics is no surprise. As Marc Lynch wrote in December, “Shockingly, Egypt pretty much looks like any other country 6 months following a military coup.” Lynch’s basic point is correct. This was entirely predictable. But it is worth noting that, due to the unique nature of the country’s ideological divides, international acquiescence or outright support of the coup, and anti-Brotherhood hatred on the part of a significant segment of the population, Morsi’s overthrow has, in fact, deviated from the norm and ushered in a more repressive period than that which followed the vast majority of recent coups, bringing Egypt on par with Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and, more recently, Algeria in the 1990s.

None of this changes the fact that the Morsi government, in absolute terms, was a failure. Morsi and the Brotherhood, animated by majoritarianism, did not govern in the spirit of inclusive democracy. The Islamist-dominated constitution-drafting process produced a deeply flawed and illiberal framework—though over 60 percent of Egyptians ultimately voted in favor of the document amid low voter turnout. But, as incompetent and divisive a president as Morsi no doubt was, the opposition still had recourse to counter and constrain executive action. And, for us, this is the key consideration: Can the opposition oppose the government, through the organization of political parties and protests, as well as through the media?

None of these channels are afforded to the Islamist opposition—or any other opposition—under Egypt’s current leaders, who have effectively criminalized dissent (as when three Strong Egypt party members were sentenced to three years in prison for hanging up posters calling for a “no” vote in the country’s recent constitutional referendum). The new political order is closed to a broad swath of the population in a way that it never was under Morsi or even Mubarak.

Many critiques of Morsi’s year in office advance two simultaneous assumptions, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government was both incompetent and autocratic. There is substantial evidence for the first claim, reflected in the mismanagement of the economy and the seemingly endless gaffes, missteps, and policy reversals. But the evidence for the latter, as we have shown, is quite thin.

The tragedy of Egypt’s failed transition is a tragedy of perception and expectations. Decades of transitions show that Morsi, while inept and majoritarian, was no more autocratic than a typical transitional leader and was more democratic than other leaders during societal transitions. In Egypt, the coup dismantled fragile democratic institutions, based on fears of the future rather than the substance of the present. This is a polity in which the opposition has little, if any, recourse and where even mild dissent is met with arrest. What remains—and what is likely to remain for some time—is a military-led regime with few checks on its power. Egypt’s descent into autocracy is bad enough, on its own, but it did not come out of nowhere. It was legitimized and justified based on a fundamental misreading and distortion of what came before.

This article originally appeared in
The Atlantic