On 22 November 2012 president Mohammed Morsi sacked Egypt’s prosecutor general and decreed that any decisions by him could not be overturned by any court. This decree gave him the power to rule Egypt at his whim. Morsi claimed that his move was meant to protect the revolution and that he assumed these powers on a temporary basis, until a new People’s Assembly is elected. His supporters, like Mahmoud Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general, claimed that Morsi was forced to make this step in order to protect the Constituent Assembly and the new Egyptian constitution that it was drafting. On 2 December the Supreme Court would have ruled on the legality of this body and Morsi feared that it would disband the Constituent Assembly as it had earlier disbanded the People’s Assembly. Is Egypt back to where it started with a new dictator or was it really a frantic attempt to save the Egyptian revolution?
To answer this question, we have to go back to the revolution itself. After the protests had toppled Egypt’s old dictator, the Egyptian army under guidance of field marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi took over forming a transitional government, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The transition from a dictatorial regime to a democracy would take place in three phases: the election of a new parliament, the election of a new president and the writing of a new Egyptian constitution. The first phase started at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 with general elections for Egypt’s lower (People’s Assembly) and upper houses (Shura Council). The Muslim Brotherhood participated in the election through its new political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) led by Mohammed Morsi. It ran a successful campaign as the Muslim Brotherhood was a well-organised movement, but also a popular one thanks to its welfare programs, its anti-corruption drive and its role as opposition party under the Mubarak regime. The FJP became as a result Egypt’s largest political party. An ultraorthodox Islamist party, the Nur Party, also participated in the elections and won a large share of the seats in the Shura Council. This was an unexpected boon for the Islamists as most ultra orthodox Muslims have their reservations about participating in unislamic activities like politics and democracy.
After the elections, the two Islamist political parties dominated both houses. This dominance formed the seeds of the current problems. Firstly, because parliament had to appoint the members of the Constituent Assembly, which would have to write Egypt’s new constitution. The Islamists proposed that a large part of the 100 available seats in the Assembly would be allotted to parliamentarians. As they had a majority in parliament, they would also have gotten most of these seats and a majority in the Constituent Assembly. After protests from liberal and secular parties in parliament, they settled in June 2012 for an Assembly which counted only 33 political representatives (of which 20 came from the FJP, Muslim Brotherhood and Nur Party). The rest of its members consisted of legal experts, representatives of the Islamic and Christian faiths and members of the March 6 movement. With the appointment of a reasonably diverse Constituent Assembly the country seemed to be more or less on the right track.
However, soon after the appointment of the Constituent Assembly by the People’s Assembly, the last was disbanded by Egypt’s Supreme Court. The Court ruled that political parties had acted against the election law during the elections by competing for so-called single-winner seats, reserved for individual candidates. Although the Supreme Court ruled that the past decisions of the People’s Assembly remained valid, it was unclear whether its appointment of the Constituent Assembly was legal. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on this matter.
The dissolution of the People’s Assembly was considered a political move by some Egyptians as the court issued at the same time another political sensitive ruling. Ahmed Shafiq, minister and prime-minister under president Mubarak, was allowed to run for the presidency regardless a law issued by the now dissolved parliament forbidding former high-ranking figures of the Mubarak regime to run for public positions. These two rulings by the Supreme Court were rumoured to be attempts of the old regime to undo the revolution. This did not strengthen the position of Ahmed Shafiq, who was able to reach the second round of the presidential elections, but had to face Mohammed Morsi as his opponent. The presidential elections that had started as a celebration of newfound plurality ended in the choice between a member of the former regime or Muslim Brother. In the end the voters chose to protect the revolution at all costs electing Morsi as their president. But this decision created a dangerous political imbalance as the Islamists now not only controlled parliament, but also the presidency.
But the SCAF had stripped the presidency of most of its powers before the end of the presidential elections as a security measure in case Morsi would win. He did, but the newly elected president had little or no say over national security or state budget nor any control over the army and the Constituent Assembly. Before its own voluntarily dissolution, the SCAF also ensured that its members retained powerful positions in Morsi’s new cabinet. Its leader, field marshal Tantawi, became the new minister of Defence. Although Morsi tried in vain to exercise his powers by convening the dissolved People’s Assembly, he seemed to be on the leash of Egypt’s army. However, Morsi soon got rid of this leash. An attack on an Egypt border post in Sinai in August 2012 gave him the opportunity to dismiss Tantawi and other former SCAF members from his government and replace them with army officers of his choice. The restraints on the presidency were lifted.
In the meantime, the Constituent Assembly continued to work on the third and last phase of Egypt’s transition, a new constitution. However, the drafting of the constitution was accompanied by tensions between the secular and Christian members of the Assembly and its Islamist members. While the first two groups pushed for a civil state, rights for workers and farmers and a pluralistic constitution, the last stressed the dominance of Islam within the constitution and that certain provisions should be “according to the principles of sharia (Islamic law)”. In the end, almost all Christian and secular representatives withdrew from the Assembly, leaving it in the hands of the Islamists. In spite of the withdrawals the Assembly started on 29 November to vote on the new constitution. It passed which means that in the near future a referendum will be held in which the Egyptians can approve or reject the new constitution. The proposed constitution has many flaws, such as the attribution of broad powers to the president (enabling the rise of another Mubarak), the limitation of the freedom of faith to the three Abrahamic faiths, the prohibition to insult people or prophets (which makes the persecution of religious minorities and critics very easy) and the possibility to limit the freedom of press through court.
Did Morsi the right thing by giving himself absolute powers? Yes, because Egypt needs a new constitution as soon as possible to limit the current unlimited powers of the president and to conclude the transitional period, a period of (legal) uncertainty and chaos. No, because nothing can justify the assumption of unlimited power by Morsi. Moreover, he intervened in an ongoing case of the Supreme Court and crippled the independence of the judiciary as a result. Finally, he has ensured with his decree that the government and Egypt’s future are back under the control of one group, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm. The presidency, parliament, judiciary and the Constituent Assembly are fully under their control. Egypt seems to be back where it started before the revolution. Who will force Morsi to give up his powers? The answer is the streets. The only thing that the Egyptians can do and do is to protest against their new dictator and hopefully will these ongoing protests bring Morsi to his senses. Egypt needs a constitution, a president with limited powers, an independent judiciary and a functioning parliament. It has now none of this all, but let us hope that the Egyptians on the street get what they want: “No more dictators!”
Main internet sources and further reading
– Egyptian daily Egypt Independent – egyptindependent.com
– Egyptian daily al-Ahram – ahram.org.eg
– Qatari news organisation al-Jazeera – aljazeera.com
– US think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org