Sunday December 9, 2012
Reversing into Egypt’s future
Behind The Headlines
By Bunn Nagara
At first President Morsi wasn’t very forward-looking, now he also cannot look forward to the future.
THE French Revolution had the Reign of Terror to follow it, and Egypt’s Tahrir Square moment had Tahrir Square 2 as an encore – or rebound.
There are differences, of course. There have been no 18th-century ritual beheadings, just shootings, beatings and rioting that killed six and injured more than 700 in just three days of escalating street violence – with worse to come.
Some partisans in Egypt’s latest round of emotional mayhem will deny all such comparisons altogether. But there is no denying the pervasive terror that grips anyone not belonging to the “right” group in the “right” place at the “right” time.
The eerie similarities with France’s post-revolutionary fervour is compelling. Within five months of taking office, President Mohamed Morsi on Nov 22 effectively gave himself new powers above and beyond constitutional accountability.
Shock, dismay and horror greeted his sweeping unilateral action, simmering for two weeks until Tuesday’s outbreak of violence. Streetfighting quickly became a norm, with anti- and pro-Morsi activists trading blows and the latter finding more comfort in the police and military presence.
Morsi said his special powers would apply only until a new Constitution is ratified. Many saw it as forcing through a new body of laws: senior judges condemned his action, several of his advisers resigned, and human rights groups attacked it.
Critics generally saw his action as mirroring deposed autocrat Mubarak’s. Some said that in three decades of authoritarian rule, even Mubarak never sought the decree powers Morsi had given himself.
Something of Morsi’s predicament can be seen in the scale of the reaction against him and his governing style. Within days it reached beyond Tahrir Square, spreading from Cairo to Ismailia, Menoufia and points in between.
Tellingly, protesters massed around Morsi’s presidential palace and strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, of which Morsi had been a senior member before assuming the presidency.
Morsi is not Mubarak or Mubarak II, but their styles are disturbingly similar. The new president feels he needs unprecedented power to get what he wants, which he says is good for the nation.
And what is it that he wants so badly? A new Constitution for the country, which he presumes the country needs.
Analysts who have compared Egypt’s old and proposed new Constitutions find some details that would discomfort democrats and secularists. Morsi the Islamist would want to turn a secular Egypt into an Islamic state, and this would be done primarily through the law.
Morsi’s new draft Constitution seeks to make syariah the source of all of Egypt’s laws. It would, among other things, give unelected power to the Al-Aqsa Mosque to influence policies, remove prior legal protection for women, and leave much of enforcement to subjective interpretation.
For practically any country today, these amount to a political recipe for disaster. For Egypt, the troubles have already begun.
Morsi and his supporters say he needs the extra powers to protect the draft Constitution from remnants of the old (Mubarak) regime still threatening any change. But increasingly, that argument is sounding desperately hollow.
With Mubarak gone for good, it is unclear what any remnants of his can do anymore. Morsi’s biggest opponents now are liberals, democrats, constitutionalists and secularists who had opposed Mubarak the autocrat, without realising that they would soon have to contend with Morsi the “retro-crat”.
It is here that some commentators lose the plot by giving the benefit of the doubt to Morsi the incumbent that they would never give to Mubarak before.
There is an academic argument that since Morsi was elected, what he does subsequently and how he has chosen to do it cannot be wrong. Morsi’s opponents have a firmer grip: to usurp undemocratic powers is wrong, and to do it in the name of democracy or during a democratic term in office is perverse.
Nobody is elected democratically to operate in anti-democratic ways, not even for the best of declared intentions. History is full of elected candidates who then become anything but democrats.
Another, related, argument holds that since Morsi is a product of the uprising, being Egypt’s “spring” or “awakening”, anything he does as the new leader must be good and defended. This non-argument would equally justify the Reign of Terror.
The third argument is predictable, given its source, and serves to prove the partisan nature of things. As the Muslim Brotherhood itself has argued, or rather positioned itself to insist, Morsi’s act must be legitimated because it serves to advance the cause of the Islamic state.
That would justify opposition to it from practically everyone else. With a deft sleight-of-hand, the revolution had become the counter-revolution while accusing opponents of being counter-revolutionary.
Enter the Muslim Brotherhood, and the face-off immediately becomes religiously defined, ideological and partisan. It confirms the worst fears of Morsi’s opponents and others in between.
To cap it all, neither Morsi nor the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have any inkling of how to advance policy, let alone administer a country. They could not sell their agenda to the general public through persuasion, so they resort to force.
Even after three whole days of spiralling violence, Morsi was neither seen nor heard from. As the person at the centre of the storm, he was conspicuous by his absence and deafening in his silence.
Talk of a speech to come in a televised address to the nation filtered through international news channels. And then the speech finally came, late on Thursday night.
After skimming off the verbiage reprimanding violent (opposition) activists, and denials that he would do anything of the kind, Morsi’s speech offered little that was new like a national dialogue for yesterday. He would not postpone, revise or abandon the draft Constitution as his opponents had demanded.
Morsi would still want to bring all others to his point of view rather than consider the views of others. It reveals an innate inflexibility that cannot work for a healthy and enduring administration.
Coming after nearly three weeks of rising political temperatures, the speech was an anti-climax. Far from convincing critics or pacifying adversaries, its inattention to their demands can only deepen the national divide.
Morsi’s much-awaited speech shows he is unwilling or unable to feel the pulse of the nation. In the rapidly changing situation that is today’s Egypt, that amounts to resolutely staying out of touch with the people he is supposed to serve and represent.
The endgame that is certain to come looks increasingly bleak: more anguish, more fighting, more tanks and more blood on the streets. None of the opposition figures has the gravitas to take over acceptably, and nobody is prepared to entertain external intervention.
Elsewhere, there is talk of top members of the Muslim Brotherhood pulling Morsi’s strings. While the President is constitutionally the head of the government, there may be unelected others determining his policies and priorities in a theocracy serving a higher cause.
In this scenario, democracy is only a means for gaining power. Once political power is achieved, accountability and transparency are dispensable since theocracies serve higher purposes than mere democracies.
The lack of constitutional capacity and adroitness of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood associates so far, despite the constitutional office he occupies as president, lends credence to that prospect.