Policy Papers

Promoting democracy in an ancient state: the case of Egypt

Andrew Blick , Alex Loktionov |

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Executive Summary

  • Contemporary Egypt epitomises many of the tests faced by international efforts to promote democracy. It also presents its own distinctive challenges.
  • Efforts to analyse the determinants of, and obstacles to, democratisation worldwide have long recognised the value of history, not only of a more recent nature but extending back to ancient times. Egypt has a rich history of sophisticated modes of governance from Pharaonic times onwards. Yet its potential value in this respect has been neglected, as part of a wider overlooking of the public value of Ancient Egyptian history in its political connotations.
  • Unlike some post-colonial states in the Middle East, Egypt is not a recent construction – indeed it has a strong claim to being the oldest integrated state in the world. However, for much of its history, Egyptian central government has been either explicitly foreign, or at least subject to significant external influence.
  • Much discussion about democracy in Egypt – and the Middle East generally – focuses on the potentially inhibiting role of Islam. Clearly this concern is of immense importance. We do not address it directly in this paper, but propose that a broader perspective might also be useful. Egypt has a long religious history predating the arrival of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century.
  • Consideration of the long-term history of Egypt reveals a further set of important continuities. The forms of dispute resolution and political decision-making encountered by the population of contemporary Egypt in their day-to-day lives can, in some of their essentials, be traced to the Pharaonic era. In Ancient Egypt, local entities such as qenbet-courts performed functions that were partly legal and also enabled communities to come together and talk about pressing matters, developing solutions through discussion.
  • Projects aimed at the promotion of democracy within Egypt should consider a focus on what already exists at local level. Efforts to entrench the rule of law could work with the customary practices in place. Furthermore, the informal methods of political deliberation that are already operating could be the basis for democratic process. They may not accord with the familiar models of democratic systems, and those who take part in them may not describe them as such. But they have democratic aspects to them. The idea of working as far as possible with established participatory mechanisms, more than simply overlaying approaches imported from elsewhere, may be more generally applicable to international democracy promotion projects.


Contemporary Egypt epitomises many of the challenges that international efforts to promote democracy must overcome. It is in a region, the Middle East, regarded as particularly resistant to democratic advance. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 initially raised hopes for many with an interest in promoting stable popular governance and the rule of law. But in Egypt, as across much of the region, these expectations were disappointed. As in nearly all Middle East countries, the dominant religion in Egypt is Islam, a faith that some observers argue creates a hostile environment for democracy. One particular fear is that under a free electoral system a large portion of the public might support a religiously orientated political grouping intent on dismantling the democratic system which brought it to power. A politically active military – likewise common in states facing democratic difficulties – has been a constant feature of public life for many decades. External pressures, connected to conflict in the Middle East, have destabilising internal consequences for Egypt.                                                                   

Efforts to analyse the determinants of, and obstacles to, democratisation worldwide have long recognised the value of history, not only of a more recent nature but extending back to ancient times. Much attention is devoted to possible precedents for, or sources of, democratic successes: to popular government as practiced in Ancient Greece; to the role of the Church in medieval Europe; and to the revolutions of the late eighteenth century in North America and France. History is also deployed in efforts to explain democratic failure, including consideration of the bureaucracy of Ancient China; of ‘Caesaropapism’ (the fusion of secular and religious supreme authority) in systems such as the Byzantine empire; and of the impact of colonialism.

Given the importance attached to history in the analysis of democracy, the Egyptian past is a potentially rich source of learning, with a wealth of material pertaining to sophisticated modes of governance from Pharaonic times (commencing in the late fourth millennium BCE) onwards. Yet efforts to exploit the possible value of Egyptian history to the understanding of processes of democratisation, or barriers to them, are lacking.

This omission is not only to the detriment of democratic analysis, but also suggests a failure to appreciate Egyptian history as a crucial component of world political, institutional and constitutional development. Though Egypt, alongside Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria), is universally acknowledged as a major early contributor to world history, few seek to discern what might be the ongoing implications today. This paper explores ways in which this deficiency might be corrected. It begins by assessing central government in Egypt and its configuration as a state; before moving to a consideration of the role of religion, in particular that which predates Islam; an overview of the Middle East region; a discussion of the legal system; and finally an examination of local governance. The paper seeks both to explain the difficulties and identify bases on which democratic progress might be attained, and draw more general conclusions.

Central government and the Egyptian state

Unlike some post-colonial states in the Middle East, Egypt is not a recent construction – indeed it has a very strong claim to being the oldest integrated state in the world. While not always independent or united, it has nonetheless existed as a coherent geopolitical unit for over five thousand years. This long period of territorial consistency is matched by some continuity of objectives in the region it occupies, particularly with regard to the Gaza Strip, in which it had a close economic and military interest as early as the third millennium BCE. For Ancient Egypt, success on the battlefield was at a premium and the idea of political leaders with military credentials existed in Pharaonic times as it does today. While such tendencies might be democratically challenging, Egypt is at least a meaningful entity within which a democratic project might be pursued.

However, while Egypt has had a prolonged continuous existence, for much of its history its independence has been compromised. Egyptian central government has been either explicitly foreign, or at least subject to significant external influence. This tendency is important from the perspective of efforts to promote popular self-rule. If democracy requires a genuine sense of public investment in the means of government, then a strong tradition of external control or manipulation may present a barrier. The tendency of external imposition has deep roots, dating back to the very origin of the Egyptian state in the 4th millennium BCE. At this time the peoples of the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt) were subsumed into the new Pharaonic system developed by a very different and more centralised culture originating in the south (Upper Egypt). Over the next three millennia, the Pharaonic state would never become fully comfortable with perceiving itself as a single unit: the Pharaoh, usually ruling either from Memphis in the Nile Delta or Thebes in Upper Egypt, was nonetheless always styled ‘Lord of the two lands’. Thus, either one or the other of these ‘two lands’ was perpetually being controlled by a ruler not based inside it, and frequently not even familiar with it. While this practice did not stop the Egyptians from having an overriding cultural notion of their country as one whole, it did mean that major parts of it were invariably politically peripheral and cut off from the decision-making core. Indeed, this sense of disconnection occasionally prevailed, leading to Upper and Lower Egypt temporarily splitting from each other in the late 3rd millennium BCE, and then again on two separate occasions during the 2nd millennium BCE. Each time, the country was eventually reunited, but only after protracted and bloody civil war. 

Nevertheless, perhaps even more significant is the fact that this early period of Egyptian history was actually the closest the country would come to full self-rule until the later 20th century CE. The first period of entirely foreign rule occurred as early as the mid-2nd millennium BCE, when the Semitic Hyksos people from the Levant established a non-indigenous Pharaonic dynasty in the Nile Delta. While enduring only for a century, it proved the first of many foreign administrations. In the 7th century BCE, all of Egypt was briefly conquered by the Assyrian Empire, while the following century saw a permanent takeover by the Persians. In the late 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt as part of his campaign to annihilate Persia, which led to three centuries of Greek rule. By this time, the rulers of Egypt could no longer speak Egyptian. Following the defeat of the last Greek ruler, Cleopatra VII, by Augustus in 30BCE, Egypt was amalgamated into the Roman Empire – a change barely noticed by non-elite Egyptians, as by this time the foreign administration had become almost entirely disconnected from them.

With the fragmentation of the Roman Empire, rule from Rome was eventually replaced by rule from Constantinople in the 5th century CE, and this was in turn replaced by Damascus after Egypt became part of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century CE. After various dynastic changes and much political upheaval which saw Egypt ruled by further external groups such as the Fatimids and Mamluks, Egypt eventually became part of the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century. The Ottoman administration, which had already been threatened by Napoleon at the turn of the 19th century, eventually collapsed and was replaced by a British protectorate in 1882. Egypt only became a self-governing country in 1953. However, even after this milestone was reached, the newly installed government of Gamal Adbel Nasser immediately chose to receive large-scale aid and political guidance from a major global superpower: the Soviet Union. The successors to Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, switched their focus to the USA but continued to receive large amounts of aid. The Egyptian economy, and indeed the stability of the country’s political system, relies heavily on US-led foreign assistance to this day. Recent Egyptian presidents have consistently needed to make major policy concessions in exchange for this aid, both in the realm of foreign policy and domestic administration. Democracy promotion must take into account such a longstanding feature of Egyptian governance.


Much discussion about democracy in Egypt – and the Middle East generally – focuses on the potentially inhibiting role of Islam. Clearly this issue is of immense importance. We do not seek directly to address it here, but propose that a broader perspective might also be useful. Egypt has a long religious history predating the arrival of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, and this has important political connotations. In Ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh represented the ultimate fusion of political and religious authority, presented as both a mortal king and a living god capable of interceding on behalf of all Egyptians in the divine realm. The Pharaoh was nominally the high priest of every cult, and was believed magically to act on requests the living made for the dead. Thus, an offence against the Pharaoh was seen as an offence against the divinely-orchestrated universal order, Maat, which had to be upheld if the world was to keep functioning. In the Ancient Egyptian psyche, dismantling the autocratic Pharaonic regime was synonymous with the end of the world – either through a literal apocalypse, or at the very least in the form of a social degradation severe enough to destroy Egyptian civilization.

Another religion present in Egypt long before Islam was Christianity. The Egyptian Coptic Church was established as early as the 1st century CE, and three centuries later became the only legal religion. By the time Egypt was taken over by Islamic rulers, Christianity had been in place for over 600 years. Subsequently, the faith was allowed to co-exist alongside Islam, gradually dwindling in size but generally avoiding official persecution. Coptic Christians were important in the maintenance and development of the original Egyptian language, once spoken by the Ancient Egyptians and radically different from Arabic. This language, although now a minority tongue, remains spoken today by members of the Coptic Church. Thus, at least in linguistic terms, the Coptic Christians retain much stronger links to the country’s ancient past than does the Muslim majority. This connection often becomes a factor in political debates about how modern Egypt, officially a secular republic, should view a past with which the minority Christians have more in common than the majority Muslims.

Of course, none of the above observations regarding religious heritage diminish the importance of Islam in modern Egyptian society. Around 90 per cent of the population are Sunni Muslims, and both official laws and informal local customs are frequently rooted in the religion. However, the position in Egypt is nonetheless very different to many other Muslim-majority states. Largely for historical reasons of Muslim-Christian coexistence, absolute freedom of belief is enshrined in the Constitution, and Islamic Sharia law does not override the secular justice system. Indeed, successive Egyptian governments have consistently sought to eradicate Muslim groups considered to be of a fundamentalist or simply anti-governmental nature, often leading to accusations of arbitrary detention. Even Muslim politicians considered mainstream by large swathes of the population, such as the former President Mohamed Morsi, have ended up in prison in major part due to government suspicion over their perceived fundamentalism.

Egyptian Islam also contains traditions inherited from earlier religious practice. One likely case is the pouring of water over a Quran to sanctify it, with the water then being consumed by patients. This practice has its root in the religion of Pharaonic times, when water that had been poured over inscriptions of sacred formulae was believed to have medicinal properties. Likewise, the wearing of hegab (amulets inscribed with Quranic verses) is seen as a way of maintaining good health. This practice also existed in Ancient Egypt, only with texts of a different kind.  It is noteworthy that conventional Islamic theology does not approve of using the Quran to make amulets, or indeed of potentially damaging the book by soaking it in water. The use of sacred texts for such purposes clearly dates to an earlier period with a different religious reasoning, which has since been subsumed into Islamic practice without its practitioners necessarily knowing the true origins of the rite.

Thus, while the importance of Islam is without question, it is overlain on a far longer religious tradition that has not been wholly eradicated. This realisation suggests that, when we assess democratic issues in the Middle East or more widely still, we should avoid making generalisations about these states in which Islam is the dominant faith. As well as there being variants within the religion itself that are themselves historically derived, the pre-Islamic pasts of different countries can be expected to provide them with different qualities.

Yet it is also possible to detect manifestations of a religious and cultural heritage dating to long before Islam that, rather than being simply a source of diversity in the Middle East, amounts to a legacy shared across the region. Egyptian culture had a significant impact here. For instance, the Ancient Egyptian religious symbol for life and vitality, the ankh, is found on Mesopotamian seals dating to the early 2nd millennium BCE. In the 1st millennium BCE, material culture associated with Egyptian religion began to spread more widely across the Levant, modern Syria and Iraq, and as far as Khuzestan in Iran. These artifacts included not only isolated symbols, but also depictions of deities such as Horus, god of kingship. When Egypt became increasingly intertwined with the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, aspects of Egyptian theology also began to appear in Mesopotamian literature. By this time, Egyptians practicing their religion were almost certainly living in many other parts of the Middle East, contributing to the development of local cults there over a millennium before the advent of Islam. In other words, when seeking common characteristics that might underpin the political systems of the Middle East, Islam, though crucial in defining the region, is also differentiated in its manifestations; and other, older, religious traditions can potentially provide a shared bond.


Consideration of the long-term history of Egypt reveals a further set of important continuities. The forms of dispute resolution and political decision-making encountered by the population in their day-to-day lives can, in some of their essentials, be traced to the Pharaonic era. In particular, informal methods of alleviating grievances, based on mediation between dissatisfied parties by locally-appointed councils of respected residents, were already documented in the mid-2nd millennium BCE. The Ancient Egyptian qenbet-court, composed of part-time magistrates, all of whom lived and worked locally and knew the litigants personally, was empowered to deal with cases of theft, violent crime and property disputes. As Ancient Egypt had no dedicated police force, the enforcement of its verdicts was based on their acceptance both by the parties being judged and the community in which the dispute or offence had arisen. It was then up to the litigants to comply out of their own volition, or under the informal pressure of the community. The system seems to have been generally effective, although instances of offenders choosing to ignore community opinion are documented and it remains unclear if there was any effective way of punishing such people. Such forms of conflict resolution remain commonplace in contemporary Egypt, in particular in rural areas where access to the urban centres of formal justice is almost entirely absent.  

On the other hand, there is much less precedent for a western-style legal system based on formal courts, trained lawyers and an abstract ‘rule of law’. Alongside the aforementioned local courts, the Ancient Egyptian state also relied on high officials, such as provincial governors, to use their personal discretion to judge cases brought before them by petitioners. Law was not codified, although judgements were supposed to be in line with the overall theological conception of the universal order, Maat. Naturally, each official could interpret this framework differently. Finally, the state had the capacity to convene extraordinary courts, comprising the most senior administrators in the land, to try the gravest offences such as serial tomb robbery or conspiracy to murder the Pharaoh. Once again, there seems to have been no fixed procedure for the conduct of trials at this level, with the investigating officials having a high degree of freedom in deciding how to proceed. Torture was standard practice, often applied to witnesses and suspects alike, and convicted criminals could face severe punishments like impalement or severing of the nose and ears. Thus, levels of brutality and arbitrary action by officials were typically higher in cases tried by courts with heavy state involvement.

These features of Ancient Egyptian legal process appear to have notable parallels in contemporary Egypt, where levels of police brutality and popular mistrust in the formal court system remain high. The legacy of extended foreign rule has complicated matters further, as modern Egyptian law is a mix of pre-Islamic and Muslim legal traditions over which a western-style constitution and court system have been superimposed as a result of first the Napoleonic incursion and subsequently the British protectorate. This formal legal system is not only complex, but also inherently unstable – Egypt has had three constitutions in the last six years. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that for many Egyptians, legal recourse to the state organs is a last resort, and there is a preference for resolving disputes through informal local channels wherever possible. This phenomenon is also augmented by differences in legal philosophy: while local justice, both in antiquity and now, focusses on flexible, creative and concrete forms of redress aiming to satisfy as many real people as possible, centralized state justice aims to enforce abstract law which may in practice satisfy nobody. Consequently, informal justice remains as popular as ever.

Local governance

Closely connected to the gulf between formal and informal justice is the dual nature of Egyptian local governance. In Ancient Egypt, local governors were appointed by the Pharaoh to preside over administrative districts, primarily overseeing taxation and keeping the peace. However, people could also form local entities such as the qenbet-courts discussed above, whose function went beyond the purely legal domain. These bodies allowed communities to come together and talk about pressing matters, developing solutions through discussion. Concerns could then either be acted on by the community itself, or, if deemed appropriate, individuals could petition the Pharaonic representative for redress of grievances. By the later 2nd millennium BCE, workers in the employ of the state also began forming localized bodies for the purpose of negotiating their pay with government officials – indeed, the oldest recorded case of industrial action comes from Deir el-Medina, a tomb-building site in southern Egypt. This culture of collective discussion and mutual co-operation, be it among co-residents or co-workers, remains strong in Egypt to this day and can empower communities to bring about local change without necessarily having a western-style vote. Instead, voting is reserved for presidential and parliamentary elections, which have historically usually been foregone conclusions and are therefore not seen as primary agents of change.       

Ancient Egyptian practices of this kind, as well as their enduring legacy, can be a useful addition to the debate over the historical emergence of democracy. Broadly speaking, one school emphasises the originality and importance of the Ancient Greek model, to which systematic popular control of and direct participation in governance, and formal voting, was vital. Another approach argues that the Ancient Greeks were influenced by other cultures in their political system as they were in other areas. It holds further that democracy of a type was also developed elsewhere, in some cases before being taken up in Ancient Greece. It might take the form, for instance, of the holding of public assemblies to address major matters of concern. Elements of the Ancient Egyptian model of local governance might be grouped with this latter, looser version of democracy. It was less formal than the Greek system and did not have the word ‘democracy’, a Greek invention, attached to it. It also relied on an interplay between local people putting forward ideas and unelected Pharaonic officials tasked with hearing them and taking action. However, the presence of councils where ideas could be discussed, and the capacity for significant popular input into how communities were run, means that this Ancient Egyptian model might be placed on a spectrum of early democratic practice. What it shared with other early versions of democracy, of which the Greek was the most fully developed and celebrated, was its participatory nature, drawing people into processes. This quality distinguishes it clearly from many contemporary perceptions of democracy, in which representatives govern on behalf of the public, with a system of vertical accountability operating via elections. It was this variety of democracy that was most influential during the so-called second wave of democratisation in the post-Second World War decolonisation period. During this time, states such as Egypt adopted constitutions modeled on the established democracies of the time, neglecting their own traditions.  

It must be noted that none of these practices made Ancient Egypt anything other than an absolute monarchy, in the formal constitutional sense. Pharaonic authority was always formally supreme and was accepted not only as a political necessity but as a natural order. Nonetheless, the reality of local administration was such that in practice this supreme authority was also distant and hence appealed to only as a last resort to resolve pronounced difficulties or disputes. It was local government of the type described above within which people actually participated and of which they felt a part. We can detect this outlook in contemporary Egypt, and popular attitudes towards, respectively local and central government.


We hope that this paper has demonstrated the contemporary political significance of Egyptian history, from the Ancient era onwards. However, what specific lessons might be derived from the perspective of those concerned with the international promotion of democracy? We advance the following conclusions:

While the role of Islam is clearly a major consideration, we have deliberately focused on other factors which can too easily be neglected. It is important to appreciate that religious influences function in diverse ways across different territories, partly for historical reasons. Egypt has a long religious tradition predating and to some extent running in tandem with Islam, that has impacted upon the particular ways in which this more recent faith functions in Egypt today. In other areas, Islam may operate differently, also partly for historical reasons. Islam itself can change in its orientation over time, exhibits major and minor theological variants, as does Christianity, and has a remarkable capacity to absorb local traditions, also like Christianity.

This observation leads to consideration of the approach to Egypt as part of the Middle East. While a review of Egyptian religious history indicates the sources of diversity across the Middle East that exponents of democracy should take into account, it also suggests a shared pre-Islamic culture, upon which Ancient Egypt had an important influence. Another way in which the Middle East might be differentiated is between states that are more recent creations and those that have longer roots. Egypt clearly fits within the second group. Some of its objectives in the region are of long antecedence, and should be considered as such.

Pharaonic rule had a strong military and religious dimension. In this sense, it provides precedent for the current military dominance; and also, were such a system to come into being, a religious regime. But these two poles are likely to produce outcomes seen
as undesirable by supporters of democracy. Is there a path between them? If successful democracy involves a sense of public ownership of institutions and systems of rule, there are some powerful, engrained barriers to overcome, derived from the Egyptian past. Central government that is foreign in nature, or controlled or heavily influenced by external forces, has been the norm for millennia. Inducing in the society the required sense of personal and collective investment in the national political system is not, therefore, an easy task. Moreover, if such a project is known to be externally sponsored, deploying a concept and label - ‘democracy’ - that itself might be perceived as alien, the enterprise becomes more challenging still.

Rather than seeking to achieve another in a line of centralised superimpositions, it might be preferable to work with what exists at local level. The successful promotion of democracy in Egyptian society might begin here. Efforts to entrench the rule of law could work with the customary processes in place. Furthermore, the informal methods of participatory political deliberation that are already operating could be the basis for democratic process. They may not accord with formalised representative models familiar to more established democracy, and those who take part in them may not describe them as such. But they have democratic aspects to them. Experience suggests that when national, multi-party elections using secret ballot for central government are held in countries including Egypt, members of the public, faced with an unfamiliar process, may opt to support parties that are not themselves supportive of democracy. Building on existing practice, from the most local level upwards, may be the better option on offer.

Further Reading

Cartledge, Paul (2016) Democracy: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellickson, Robert (1991) Order without Law: How Neighbors settle Disputes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Isakhan, Benjamin and Stockwell, Stephen (eds) (2011). The Secret History of Democracy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keane, John (2010) The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Simon and Schuster.

Shaw, Ian (2000) The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simpson, William Kelly (ed.) (1973) The Literature of Ancient Egypt: an Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tyldesley, Joyce (2000) Judgement of the Pharaoh: Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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