Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat?

Egypt's receding democracy, by the numbers
Remnants of a poster of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. (Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)

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.

The Democracy Report

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.

Presented by

Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

Meredith Wheeler is a former Stanford in Government fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

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