Egypt, located in Africa’s northeast corner, underwent a period of immense political turbulence in the wake of 2011 region-wide protests known as the Arab Spring. Political tensions before and after these important protests are typically characterized as stemming from a conflict between two ideologies, political Islamism and secular nationalism, both of which originated in the earliest responses to British colonialism. Historically and today, the nationalist/Islamist binary is represented by the military-aligned government and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group. However, this characterization is an oversimplification that threatens to obscure the role of authoritarianism in suppressing all forms of political opposition and elides ways in which neoliberal economic policies have left most Egyptians impoverished and without access to quality education or employment—the true sources of Egypt’s discontents.

The Arab Spring created unprecedented political openings in Egypt, allowing the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to come to power with the presidency of Muhammad Morsi in 2012. After a year of rising frustration among many Egyptians disappointed with the Brotherhood’s leadership, General ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spearheaded a popular coup that led to Morsi’s arrest. Elected president in May 2014, al-Sisi is adored by many and receives widespread support from a public largely disenchanted with the Brotherhood, concerned over security, and dissatisfied with the economy. These frustrations have granted political capital to the military, which many hope will steward true democracy. However, many other Egyptians were deeply alarmed by the coup and by the election of al-Sisi, for various reasons. Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters mounted protests against the coup that the military curtailed through thousands of arrests and targeted violence leading to the deaths of hundreds of protestors and a smaller number of military personnel. A variety of youth and labor activists have also protested in opposition to the renewed role of the military in government, many of whom were imprisoned.[1]

Egypt is a religious society with a nearly 90% Muslim majority and a large Coptic Christian minority. The post-Arab Spring struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government is not one of religion vs. secularism, and both Islamists and the military have invoked religion. The military, for example, enlisted voices within the Sunni ulama to legitimize their actions, which includes sanctioning the use of deadly force against pro-Morsi protesters.[2] Throughout the conflict—even prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring protests—a spectrum of activists drew on the Islamic and Coptic religious language of martyrdom to frame the deaths both of those who sparked the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and those who died during subsequent protests. President al-Sisi represents himself as a pious Muslim and “defender of the faith,” claiming to exemplify a more authentically Egyptian version of Islam than that of the Brotherhood.[3]

The government under President al-Sisi has stemmed both secular and Islamist opposition, often framing it in terms of restoring security and combating terrorism, a narrative popularized under previous regimes. In December 2013, the transitional military government labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, criminalizing its finances and activities and those of its supporters, a harsh echo of earlier decades during which the Brotherhood was banned.[4] Since Morsi’s removal, the military has silenced opposition news media and scores of Brotherhood members have been arrested along with other opposition protestors and journalists critical of the military. In April 2014, an Egyptian court sentenced in absentia nearly 700 Brotherhood members and leaders to death after a brief trial for their alleged participation in riots that left one police officer dead. That same month, a court convicted members of the nonviolent liberal April 6 movement on charges of espionage. Both trials were condemned by many within Egypt and internationally.[5]

Pious Egyptians (whether Muslim or Copt) are varied in their support for any single political group or leader, though most Copts and Coptic institutions did support al-Sisi’s bid for presidency after their profound marginalization under Morsi. Roughly one in five Muslims ascribes to some form of Sufism, while others follow a more austere Salafi interpretation of Islam, and there are numerous Islamist groups in Egypt which include moderate perspectives such as the Brotherhood as well as militant organizations, and may or may not overlap with Salafism. Following the Arab Spring, many of these groups formed political parties and participated in parliamentary and presidential elections, including Salafi, Sufi, and Coptic parties. All parties based in religious ideology have since been banned. While al-Sisi’s supporters are hopeful that Egyptian nationalism will unify a broad spectrum of Egyptians, many pro-democracy activists worry that leadership has backslid into the military authoritarianism of the Mubarak era, undoing the gains and sacrifices of the Arab Spring.[6]

[1] The Associated Press, “Egypt Revolutionaries Make Return to Tahrir Square,” NPR, November 19, 2013, accessed November 21, 2013.

[2] David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, “Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” The New York Times, August 25, 2013, accessed October 10, 2013.

[3] Tom Perry, “Egypt’s Sisi turns Islam on the Islamists,” Reuters, May 9, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014.

[4] Erin Cunningham, “Egypt’s military-backed government declares Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization,” The Washington Post, December 25, 2013, accessed January 7, 2014.

[5] David Kirkpatrick, “Uproar in Egypt After Judge Sentences More Than 680 to Death,” The New York Times, April 28, 2014.

[6] Reuters, “Protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square criticize police, army,” Reuters, November 18, 2013, accessed November 21, 2013.

Image Credits:

"Egyptian workers march to Shura Council on May Day 2013," Gigi Ibrahim, modified from Flickr Creative Commons.

See also: Africa, Middle East