Less than two years after the stirring revolution that overthrew the Mubarak dictatorship, mass protests are raging again on the streets of Egypt. Lethal violence between different factions has ensued and the revolution that unified Egyptians of all backgrounds and beliefs is in danger of collapsing into deep division. Much of the blame for this sad state of affairs must be attributed to Mubarak’s democratically elected successor as President, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
On 22nd November, Morsi issued a decree granting himself sweeping new powers to override parliament and the courts. His main motivation for seizing untrammelled power was to force through his preferred version of the new Egyptian Constitution. After the revolution, all parties agreed Egypt needed a new Constitution after decades of dictatorship. A Constitutional Assembly was set up to prepare a draft to be put to the people in a referendum. Unfortunately, rather than seek compromise and a democratic Constitution that accommodated the perspectives of all Egyptians, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement stacked the Assembly with their representatives. Their attempts to ensure that the draft reflected the Brotherhood’s Islamist views led to the mass resignation of the Assembly’s Christian, female and secularist members. Now, rather than trying to repair the situation, Morsi has brought the referendum forward to 16th December and the vote will be on an ill-considered draft with a distinctly Islamist flavour.
This is a grave mistake by the Brotherhood. A constitution should not be a matter of party politics. It is the foundation document that lays down the rules and principles on which a country’s political and legal system is based. To be sustainable, it must be respected by the overwhelming majority of the people and political actors in the state. Using power grabs to implement the will of one party that won only a marginal majority in a single election is a recipe for long-term instability.
Morsi’s actions are even more problematic and dangerous in the particular circumstances prevailing in Egypt. By allocating himself essentially the same emergency powers that Mubarak used to rule dictatorially for thirty years, Morsi has shown contempt for the millions of Egyptians who fought so hard, so recently, to overthrow dictatorship. Worse still, his power grab is fulfilling the time-honoured fears of non-Brotherhood supporters about the movement. The precedent of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which started out broad-based but was taken over by the Islamists, is seared on the consciousness of many in the Middle East. Indeed, the long-standing slogan used against the Brotherhood by their opponents is that they believe in democracy only on the basis of “one man, one vote, one time” – meaning that they would use one election to seize power before embarking on a programme to Islamize society and to hold onto power indefinitely. In the eyes of many Egyptians, Morsi seems intent on proving that slogan correct.
In fairness to Morsi and the Brotherhood, they do have a slim democratic mandate to govern and they have been frustrated in their attempts to move Egypt in their desired direction by obstruction from old-regime elements in the military, state bureaucracy and judiciary. They are also feeling the heat of public criticism at their inability in government to turn around a struggling economy and failing public services. The way to tackle this, though, would have been to follow the lessons of the revolution itself and work together with the broad coalition of liberals, leftists, non-Islamists and secularists against the entrenched interests of the old regime elite. Instead, they have alienated all of those groups who instigated the revolution whilst the Brotherhood initially stood cautiously aside and have actually made common cause with some of the anti-revolutionary forces in, for example, the military. The new draft Constitution, inexcusably, allows them to retain their right to appoint one of their own officers as Minister of Defence and to keep their budget secret.
Despite the lamentable way in which it is managing the process, the Brotherhood’s draft Constitution will probably be approved in the referendum on 16th December. The movement has a deep well of support, particularly amongst the masses of poor and rural Egyptians. This support was earned during the long years of dictatorship, when the Brotherhood was often supressed yet still managed to reach out to the people others did not care about and provide them with services when the state failed to do so. However, it is not sensible politics for the Brotherhood to force a new Constitution through just because they can. A Constitution that is not supported by all sides of the political spectrum will make it difficult for any government, including a Brotherhood one, to govern effectively.
More optimistic analysts have often suggested that, once it was able to emerge from the semi- underground it was pushed into by the dictatorship, the Brotherhood would evolve into a conservative political party based on religious values along the lines of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. Sadly, recent events have done nothing to bear out this analysis and seem to show that the “one man, one vote, one time” pessimists might have been right all along.