Sat, Dec 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Egypt’s president walking a dangerous tightrope over reform

As the nation suffers violent protests over Mohamed Morsi’s recent sweeping decrees, once the dust has settled the real winners could be Egypt’s security forces

By Omar Ashour

For Morsi and his supporters, it was imperative to neutralize the Constitutional Court judges, whose ruling last June dissolved the first freely elected, post-revolution People’s Assembly (the parliament’s lower house). According to the Morsi camp, the politicized court intended to dissolve the Consultative Council (the upper house) and the Constitutional Assembly, as some of its judges publicly hinted. Likewise, the sacked public prosecutor had failed to present any solid evidence against those of Mubarak’s security chiefs and officers who were accused of killing protestors, leading to acquittals for almost all of them.

As a president who was elected with only a 51.7 percent majority, Morsi needs to be sensitive to the demands of his supporters, mainly the Islamists and revolutionaries victimized by the security forces. However, for many revolutionaries, there were other ways to sack a tainted prosecutor and cleanse the judiciary. For example, a new law regulating the judiciary has been a demand of the revolution since its early weeks.

For Morsi, the dilemma was that the Constitutional Court could strike down the law, rendering the effort meaningless. He had already backed off twice: once in July, when he abandoned his effort, under pressure from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to reinstate the elected parliament; and once when he tried to remove the public prosecutor by making him Egypt’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Morsi’s “Constitutional Declaration” was a decisive — though undemocratic, polarizing, and thus politically costly — step to break the impasse. While such decrees have led to dictatorships, not democracies, in other countries undergoing political transition, none had a politicized judicial entity that played the role of spoiler in the democratization process.

Indeed, almost two years after the revolution began, Egypt’s security forces have not been reformed in any meaningful way. Now, Morsi, in his effort to force out the prosecutor, will have to avoid opening another front with the Mubarak-era security generals, whom he will need to protect state institutions and maintain a minimum level of public security.

The security sector may, it seems, emerge from this crisis as the only winner. It will enforce the rule of law, but only for a price. That price will be reflected in the constitution, as well as in the unwritten rules of Egypt’s new politics. This constitutes a much more serious and lasting threat to Egypt’s democratization than do Morsi’s temporary decrees.

Omar Ashour is director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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