In Washington last week, the White House openly decried the sharply negative trajectory of Egyptian politics. The mass death sentences leveled against hundreds of Egyptians, the imprisonment of journalists and activists, and the tightening restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly, the White House said, are cause not merely for "deep" but also "growing concerns."

Visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy seemed to be representing a completely different country when he boasted of Egypt's difficult but steady progress toward democracy since last summer's overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. "The Egyptian people revolted twice for a democratic system," he told an assembled Washington audience. "That is their objective. That is where they're going. But the process will have to go through a transition."

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.
More >

Which way is Egypt's politics heading? The Egyptian regime's main justification for its determined optimism has been its checklist. Then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set out a clear road map on July 3, this argument goes, and he prepares to assume the presidency only after the country has faithfully followed the steps outlined last year. To focus on this negative development or that -- as Western diplomats and foreign journalists seem wont to do -- ignores this progress. Having lived up to their word, Egyptians should be greeted not with ostracism and criticism but with accolades for managing a democratic transition under very difficult circumstances.

So let's dust off the July 3 road map and use it as a yardstick for measuring what is happening in Egypt. A look at both the fine print and the general spirit reveals that parts of the road map have been fulfilled. But important parts have been forgotten, ignored, or violated. And that points to the deeply flawed nature of the Egyptian "transition" -- if the country is transitioning to anything, it is not to a democracy in anything other than the most technical sense of the term.

What were the elements of the road map? Let us keep our eyes both on the letter and the spirit.

1. Suspending the constitution written under Morsi

Letter of the road map: Temporary suspension of the constitution; formation of committees of forces from across the political spectrum and experts to draft and review proposed amendments.

Spirit of the road map: To move quickly and in an expert and consensual manner to make limited changes to the 2012 constitution.

Performance: The suspension of the constitution was carried out flawlessly. But then the process ran into problems: The constitution was amended in a manner that may have violated the letter and certainly violated the spirit of the road map.

First, the committee did not just tinker with the constitution -- it systematically rewrote the entire document. Did that matter? Not for everyone -- but it did for the Salafists, who had only wanted minor changes so that they could protect their favorite parts, which seemed to promise a more robust role for Islamic law. But those clauses wound up on the cutting-room floor. The Salafi political leadership complained, but then decided to support the process -- and now even back Sisi for president -- in order to retain legal existence.

And that leads to the second and far larger problem: Only parts of the political spectrum were represented in the amendment process, contrary to the original promise. The largest party in the last parliamentary elections received no seats on the 50-member committee. The second largest party received one. The reason for this oversight? They were Islamists.

The committee also seemed biased in favor of state institutions, which got more than a voice in the process -- they often seemed to get a veto. Political forces outside the state were only allowed to color inside lines drawn by generals, bureaucrats, judges, and police.

2. An acting president

Letter: To have the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) serve as acting president until the election of a new president.

Spirit: The drafters of the road map went not to the 2012 constitution but back to the 1971 constitution to pick the official second in line for succession, the chief justice of the SCC, in order to pluck a figure who would take his caretaker role seriously.

Performance: When Adly Mansour was appointed, I described him with the phrase "pleasant smile, closed lips." That proved accurate -- to a degree. It took Mansour a few months on the job to smile in public, but he finally did. And when he has opened his lips, it has generally been to give speeches so short that a leading comedian, Bassem Youssef, has posed as a man sitting down with a big bowl of popcorn who cannot take a bite before the president has concluded.

The letter and the spirit of this clause have therefore been completely fulfilled. And Egypt also got an added bonus as well: some assurance that its transition would be written up in correct legal form, since that is the acting president's forte.

3. Temporary rules

Letter: The head of the SCC will have the power to issue constitutional declarations during the transitional period until the election of a new president.

Spirit: After President Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February 2011, Egypt's rulers kept tinkering with the rules of politics through a stream of "constitutional declarations," which were designed subtly and not-so-subtly to tilt the playing field in their favored direction. And they did a bad job in a technical sense as well, leaving all kinds of loopholes and planting all kinds of time bombs in those documents. By giving the job to an acting president -- and a constitutional court justice at that -- the interim rules would be minimal and nonpartisan.

Performance: Pretty good. Mansour used his power to issue constitutional declarations very sparingly: once to disband the Brotherhood's last outpost in government, the upper house of the parliament; the other to issue an interim framework for governing that expired when the new constitution was approved in a January 2014 plebiscite. Those amendments allowed the president to change the order of elections, so Egypt would hold the presidential elections before parliamentary elections.

But there are some blemishes here. While Mansour used "constitutional declarations" sparingly, he has also issued laws by decree that have harmed Egypt's effort at democratization. Foremost among these has been a vague law that the security forces have seized upon to shut down many public protests. And he is now considering laws against terrorism that are similarly vague enough to be abused in an authoritarian manner.

4. Interim technocratic rule

Letter: Forming a cabinet of national, strong, capable experts who enjoy all powers during the current period.

Spirit: No matter whom you blame -- the deep state, a bloody-minded Islamist movement, or the sheer enormousness of the challenges -- Egypt was adrift when Morsi was president. Its economic problems were perpetually mounting, and the country appeared impossible to govern. The idea last summer was to bring in a group of people who were highly qualified to manage affairs and make policy while fundamental political questions were decided.

Performance: Strong out of the starting gate but nowhere near the finish line. The cabinet appointed in July 2013 was perhaps Egypt's most qualified one on paper. It did have some political figures, but it was impressively long on degrees, experience, and reputations.

But as it turned out, it was also short on authority, direction, and coherence. Security questions were left to Egypt's scheming security apparatus, which seemed more concerned with vengeance than political reconstruction. Economic plans were designed -- but then postponed. Foreign leaders tried to go straight to Sisi, seeing him as the current and future leader. Decisions seemed to be made -- or shelved -- in the shadows.

As a result, the country remained adrift and some of the most able figures in the cabinet left. When Sisi steps into the presidency, he will find an in-box similar to the one that greeted the cabinet last July when it took office -- and not unlike the one that greeted Morsi in June 2012.

5. Parliamentary elections

Letter: The SCC was to expedite its review of the election law for parliament passed by the Brotherhood-dominated upper house, and then the country was to move toward parliamentary elections.

Spirit: Egypt had been without a parliament since June 2012; it would get one quickly.

Performance: The letter of the road map remains completely unfulfilled -- the law was never submitted to the SCC. Instead, Mansour is having some lawyers work on a new law. And that means the spirit has been violated as well -- it is likely to be several months more before a parliament is finally seated. By this foot dragging, Egypt's interregnum was prolonged greatly.

One benefit of the procedure is that Egypt may get its first parliamentary election law since the 1970s to be found constitutional by the SCC. Mansour, after all, is pulling double duty as the SCC's chief justice and the figure overseeing the drafting of the law. He will have to recuse himself if the SCC reviews the law that he helped draft, but he is likely to have a bit of insight of how they will react to the law as it is being prepared.

6. Media reform

Letter: Putting together a code of ethics that ensures media freedom and achieves professional standards, credibility, and objectivity that prioritize the nation's high interests.

Spirit: Have the media reform themselves.

Performance: The letter has been forgotten. And the spirit? Pockets of professionalism aside, Egyptian media seem to specialize in pouring gasoline on any flame and yelling fire in crowded theaters. Enthusiasm is their strong suit, ethics are not.

Nor has the media been left to reform itself. Security forces and the public prosecution have lent a helping hand -- or to switch metaphors slightly, an iron fist -- by jailing journalists, Egyptians and foreigners alike, who poke their noses in the wrong places.

7. Youth integration

Letter: Taking executive measures to empower and engage the youth in the state institutions, to be a decision-making partner as aides to ministers, governors, and in different executive posts.

Spirit: Getting Egypt's gerontocracy to add a few seats to the table.

Performance: There has been some grudging compliance with the letter of the road map, but tokenism aside, Egypt is still ruled by older men (and a few older women). There is some indication that Egypt's new rulers sense they have a problem -- there was much handwringing over low youth turnout in the constitutional referendum earlier this year. But Egypt's rulers have still fallen back on head-bashing when faced with rebellious youth movements: One such prominent group, the April 6 Movement, recently found itself banned and its leaders imprisoned.

8. National reconciliation

Letter: Forming a supreme committee for national reconciliation of personalities who enjoy credibility and acceptance by all national elites and represent different movements.

Spirit: Can't we all just get along?

Performance: No, we can't. What else can be said in a country where "reconciliation" has become a dirty word? There was a grudging effort to allow some mediation efforts last summer. But since that time, would-be mediators have been more likely to be attacked than welcomed. There has simply been no attempt to comply with the letter or the spirit of this pledge.

With over 1,000 death sentences, thousands of violent deaths, and well over 10,000 people jailed since the overthrow of Morsi, the claim that Egypt is in the midst of a democratic transition has convinced few outside observers. But even according to its own checklist, Egypt's record is uneven. The shortcomings are not all technical and legalistic -- some, such as the fate of the reconciliation pledge, have been fundamental. And the process has taken much longer than was suggested in July 2013, allowing it to be more carefully managed by the country's new leaders.

The existence of two different visions of Egypt -- one sliding into despotism, the other dutifully following its people to a democratic future -- is deeply problematic for the country's leadership. As a result, defenders of the new order have come to equate statements of concern about the political climate in the country to hostility to Egypt. Once again, regime, state, and society are being blended in political debates -- and there is no better sign of the way that the hopes of 2011 have been dashed.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.