December 9, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
Mohammad Morsi, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political party representing the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected President in July amidst threat from the military to clip his powers even before he was elected. Earlier, the judges, all elected by the ousted Mubarak regime had declared the democratically elected parliament in which the FJP dominated Democratic Alliance of Egypt had won 235 seats and an Islamic bloc consisting of the fundamentalist Salafists and others won 123 seats out of 508 in the lower house , annulled on technicality. The military and the judges left little doubt in anyone’s mind that they were acting hand in glove to keep the Islamic parties led by the FJP from establishing themselves in Egypt’s post Arab Spring politics without shedding considerable powers to the military; to the judges and to the secular forces where these forces are unable to gain these powers through the democratic process.
The FJP acted patiently. Mohammed Morsi and his party did not raise any objection when the court annulled the parliament on technicality. They also remained quiet when the military through a decree clipped the powers of the President just before the final round of the presidential election. The FJP’s silence was a strategic decision; it did not want to give the military an excuse to deny its candidate the chance of winning the election in which the military had its own candidate in General Shefik who was supported by the secular forces of the country where the election was going to the wire.
Once Morsi was declared elected; he quickly reinstated the parliament that was annulled by the judges. He waited for a while to reverse the decree by which the military had severely clipped the powers of the president and had given themselves wide ranging powers, even to the extent of throwing out the new constitution to be drafted by the committee of the democratically elected parliament. The media called these moves by the military as a “subtle military coup” or a “counter revolution”. Mohamed Morsi’s first move was to remove the popular head of intelligence after the Gaza incident of August in which 18 Egyptian soldiers were killed by a terrorist attack, a General who had the confidence of the US and the Israelis.
He then moved on the powerful Field Marshal Tantawi who had been included in the civilian cabinet of Prime Minister Hesham Qandil (who is not a member of MB) as the Defense Minister with the Army Chief of Staff General Sami Anan and a few other top Generals. By these actions, Mohammad Morsi was able to undo a lot of the apprehensions in the minds of many that the Generals would not give up power that easily. Clearly, the FJP proved its worth in playing the cat and mouse game with the military to win back the gains of the democratic revolution in Egypt whose main focus was to end absolute dictatorship in the country and wrest political power from the military and the dreaded intelligence and police forces.
In the process though, President Morsi pulled out a surprise of his own to match those that the military, in clipping the president’s power with a decree and giving it near absolute power against the elected government, and the judges, by annulling the elected parliament, had delivered earlier. On November 22, just days after his government brokered the cease fire between the Hamas and Israel, the President issued a decree by which he assumed extensive powers that allowed his actions and decisions immunity from the Court. The decree was passed so quietly and suddenly that even the US Secretary of State who was in Cairo two days before the decree was announced, had no clue that it was coming. Washington was taken by surprise.
The military and the judges were equally surprised, although at this stage, the military is taking the back stage allowing the judges to lead the fight against the decree. The secular forces of Egypt and the nearly 10% Egyptian Christians are giving support to the judges against the decree and the draft constitution. Following rallies in Tahrir Square and disturbances in many parts of the country, the President explained that the powers that he gave himself were temporary and were meant to allow the Constitution to be enacted without the interference of the Courts. Meanwhile, the Committee entrusted to draft the Constitution approved the draft the draft constitution in the absence of the secular political parties that walked out. The draft was hurried through in parliament to stop the Court from declaring the Committee illegal. The new Constitution would now be placed before the people in a referendum on December 15th that again the Judges refused to supervise.
Egypt thus stands at a cross road. The democratic forces have come a long way. Egypt has had parliamentary and presidential elections that were free and fair. Undemocratic forces led by the military and judges nominated to their positions by the discredited and autocratic regime of President Mubarak have made major efforts against empowering the elected representatives but their efforts have been thwarted so far by the elected government. The only problem in identifying the current actions in the country against the elected government as actions against democracy is the fact that the secular forces have joined hands with the military and the judges; the very secular forces that had ushered in the “Arab Spring” by promising to overthrow the military’s stranglehold on power. The secular forces have again rallied in Tahrir Square against the latest decree of the President as well as the decision of the government to take the constitution for referendum ..
The movement by the secularist forces against the elected government of Mohammad Morsi has created the impression that Egypt’s tryst with democracy has hit a major snag. These forces have even indentified Mohammad Morsi as “the new Pharaoh.” It would perhaps be unfair to be drawn to such an unfair criticism. The government can be faulted for issuing the presidential decree as well hurrying through with the Constitution. Nevertheless, it must also be said that the President has tried to reach out to the military and the judges in the spirit of democracy to explain his actions, especially on the decree that he has said categorically would be temporary till the country has a new Constitution and firmly on road to democracy and would be restricted to “sovereign institutions.”. In the new Egypt, the term of the President would be restricted to two terms of 4 years each, thus ruling out another Hosne Mubarak emerging in Egypt’s politics.
Further, the secular forces of Egypt fought those in power in free and fair elections but their opponents won by a big majority going by the result of the parliamentary elections. President Morsi himself won with 51.7% of the votes; again in an election that was free and fair. The government’s clear majority in governance notwithstanding, it has not closed the door to discussion. Hence the new forces ruling Egypt cannot be faulted of showing the type of mindset that was shown by the regime of Hosne Mubarak and his military/intelligence/and police. Egypt is 90% Muslim and the majority favour Islam in their public lives or else they would not have voted for the FJP and the other Islamic parties. Further, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt has undergone fundamental changes. Although they would favour Islam in public life, they know that majority of Egyptians would stand up against turning Egypt into an Islamic fundamentalist country. Therefore, there is no serious danger that the new leaders of democratic Egypt would impose on the country the type of Islam that would be unacceptable to the secular spirit of majority of the Egyptians.
Egypt is going through the birth pangs of democracy. It will take time for democracy to take root keeping in mind that the country has seen little else but absolute dictatorship as long as Egyptians can remember. The political forces will continue to differ with one another; even fight in the streets; demonstrate, get together in Tahrir Square every now and then. What has changed in Egypt is that when people demonstrate, they can do so without fear of the tanks fighting them, intelligence and police chasing them into their homes and taking many of them away never to be heard of again. Egypt has changed fundamentally towards democracy and the forces vying for political power know too well that they have to fight and win political power democratically and most importantly, share that power.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and a retired Secretary