Egyptian democracy sacrificed at the altar of stability?

By: Kristian Takvam Kindt, Fafo.

The Egyptian people take to the streets protesting Morsi`s newly self-granted powers. However, the problem with Morsi`s declaration Thursday is not only the powers he granted himself. A bigger potential blow to Egyptian democracy is hidden in his protection of the current constituent assembly.

On Thursday November 22. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi issued a surprise declaration spurring protests all over Egypt. He angered the local opposition and revolutionary activists by declaring that all of his decisions would be protected from judicial oversight, until a new parliament is in place. He can do whatever he wants, and no court can stop him. Even though he used his newly given power to finally sack the unpopular general prosecutor, and ordering the re-trial of the acquitted officers accused of killing protesters in Tahrir square, this was far from enough to satisfy the opposition. Mohammed El-Baradei summed up the general resentment in his statement on Twitter. “Morsi today, usurped all state powers & appointed himself Egypt`s new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences.”

While it is easy to be skeptical of a president granting himself this much power, it is important to understand why he made this choice. It need not be a conspiracy against the revolution, as protesters in Egypt are claiming. The powers he grants himself are limited in time, and will, if he keeps his promise, only last until a new parliament is in session. This move should also be read in light of the trouble he has had getting his reforms through. He faces severe opposition, not mainly from the outside, but from inside the government bureaucracy as well, which is still largely controlled by remnants of Mubarak`s regime.  In Morsi`s view, this move is just a way to ensure that he, as the elected president, actually stand on stronger ground than the unpopular and non-elected officials loyal to the old regime.

Whether the ends justify the means in this case is questionable. Is increased presidential power, and the removal of judicial oversight really the way to go to get rid of elements loyal to the previous regime? This is a question for debate. Far worse, and much harder to justify however, was his decision to uphold the current constituent assembly no matter what any court might say. This 100-member assembly, given the task of drafting Egypt`s new constitution, is supposed to represent the different political and social forces in Egypt, including everyone from the Salafis to leftists. The process, which has been ongoing for almost a year, has been marked by problems from the very beginning.

After the first, dominantly Islamist constituent assembly was dissolved in April 2012, the current group was put together on the principle that 50% should represent the Islamists and 50% should represent the secular forces. The group has faced lacking legitimacy from the start because of complaints that religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the Copitc church were counted in among the 50% “secular” block, allegedly putting forces working for a purely civil state on weaker ground. And indeed, several secular members withdrew in protest over the Islamist bias in the assembly`s discussions.  The group still managed to complete a preliminary draft, published in early November, which have been heavily debated. No only by groups outside the assembly, like revolutionary activists and independent unions, but indeed the members themselves have been arguing for weeks on several key points in their own draft. Many liberals criticize the brotherhood for trying to force through a constitution which resembles the old constitution in all important respects, failing to redefine the relationship between state and society, with the consequence that civil society will still be under state control. Another thorny issue is sharia law. The Salafis claim the current draft contains too few references to sharia, while the liberal forces on the other hand feel that sharia is too present as it is. The conflicts haunting the constitutional drafting peaked this week, when the assembly witnessed a series of withdrawals. The church, representing Egypt`s Christian population, withdrew entirely saying that the current draft “does not reflect the identity of Egypt”, blaming the Islamists for the stalemate. Two days later the assembly seemed to suffer a final blow when almost all remaining secular forces withdrew, claiming that the Islamists were impossible to cooperate with, and that the current process would lead to a constitution which in no way reflected the will of the Egyptian people. One of the biggest liberal newspapers in Egypt, Al-Masry Al-Youwm, brought this news with the headline “Constituent assembly declared clinically dead”.

Given this backdrop, the decision by Morsi to “resurrect” the constituent assembly, giving it two months to finish a draft, and refusing to change its composition, is not only problematic, it could represent a fatal blow to the future of Egyptian democracy. It might be that the remaining members of the assembly manage to agree on a complete draft. It would not be a constitution based on a broad consensus, but rather a constitution based on an Islamist consensus. In addition, it would be constitution which gives the government almost as much power as during Mubarak`s era, failing to bring much needed changes in the relation between state and society.

The question is: Will a popular referendum vote “no” to such a constitution? This is in no way given. Even though over half of the population might be in stark disagreement with its content, there is a lack of knowledge about the intricacies of the law among the general population. This, combined with a strong wish for stability and the proven mobilizing power of the Muslim Brotherhood and it`s Freedom and Justice party might actually result in a “yes” vote, no matter how polarizing the content of the constitution actually is. Morsi could have appointed a new assembly, or changed the composition of the current one, ensuring that the final draft would be one based on a broad consensus. That he chooses to force this through, even if it means ending up with a constitution biased toward the current rulers interests, raises yet again the question of Morsi`s commitment to democracy. It might leave Egypt in a situation, not unlike the Arab autocracies we know so well, with a constitution designed to serve the presidents wishes, and a government which forces through its will, regardless of opposition. So even though the international media and protestors in Tahrir square focus on the power Morsi granted himself on Thursday, the real danger is hidden in the power he granted the constituent assembly, and the long term consequences of this decision for power sharing in Egypt. The fight over the constitution in the coming months will be a test of the strength of the post-revolutionary Egyptian civil society and political opposition. Today, despite big protests, it seems to have lost. The question is if it will ever recover?