Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first-ever elected civilian president, recently granted himself sweeping temporary powers in order, he claims, to attain the objectives of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. However, the decrees incited strong opposition from many of the revolutionary forces that helped to overthrow Mubarak — as well as from forces loyal to him — with protests erupting anew in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Morsi has thus been put in the odd position of having to defend his decision against the protesters while simultaneously making common cause with them.
“I share your dream of a constitution for all Egyptians and with three separate powers: executive, legislative and judicial,” he told his opponents.
“Whoever wants Egyptians to lose this opportunity, I will stop him,” Morsi said.
So, was Morsi’s “auto-coup” necessary to realize the revolution’s avowedly democratic goals?
The new Constitutional Declaration, the Revolution Protection Law and the new presidential decrees have several aims:
‧ To remove the public prosecutor, a Mubarak-era holdover who failed to convict dozens of the former regime’s officials who had been charged with corruption and/or abuses of power.
‧ To protect the remaining elected and indirectly elected institutions — all of which have an Islamist majority — from dissolution by Constitutional Court judges, who are mostly Mubarak-era holdovers.
‧ To bring about retrials of Mubarak’s security generals.
‧ To compensate and provide pensions for the victims of repression during and after the revolution.
While most Egyptians may support Morsi’s aims, a dramatic expansion of presidential power in order to attain them was, for many, a step too far. Given Egypt’s extreme polarization and the distrust that exists between its Islamist and secular forces, Morsi should have anticipated the protests. Suspicion of the powerful, after all, has been one of the revolution’s animating factors.
Another is a “zero-sum” attitude: Any achievement by Morsi is perceived by his opponents as a loss.
The anti-Morsi forces are sharply divided ideologically and politically. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal reformer, has little in common with Ahmed El-Zind, the head of the Judges Club and a Mubarak loyalist. However, the anti-Morsi forces that backed the revolution regard the price of cleansing the judiciary as too high, arguing that the constitutional declaration will lead to dictatorship.
Indeed, the declaration protects presidential decrees from judicial review — although Morsi stipulated that it pertains only to “sovereignty” matters, and stressed its temporary nature. It also gives the president emergency-like power to fight vague threats, such as those “endangering the life of the nation.” Only if the new draft constitution is upheld in a popular referendum on Dec. 15 will these provisions be annulled.
However, opposition factions have not been adhering to democratic principles, either. Mostly comprising electoral losers and remnants of Mubarak’s regime, some aim to topple Morsi, not just get him to backtrack on his decree.
ElBaradei, for example, “expects” the army to do its national duty and intervene if “things get out of hand” — hardly a compelling democratic stance, given the army’s track record.
Morsi’s decrees have undoubtedly polarized Egyptian politics further. The worst-case scenario is street clashes between pro and anti-Morsi hardliners. Historically, such clashes have often sparked civil war — for example, Spain in 1936 or Tajikistan in 1992 — or brutal military coups as in Indonesia in 1965 and Turkey in 1980.