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.