The “monopolizing” of political power by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is raising concern amongst the country’s democrats and external observers.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed El-Baradei warned against “fascism cloaked in religion,” after a pro-Brotherhood cleric (above) justified killing the group’s liberal opponents.
Having emasculated the country’s military, President Mohamed Morsi appears set to target the judiciary, perhaps the sole remaining constraint on Islamist rule, observers suggest.
“This is a dramatic change of events,” said Tarek Radwan, an analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, DC. “This was a process that was expected to take much longer. The fact that the two main Mubarak men have been ousted so quickly is significant.”
“Morsi is considering a tactful end to the mandate of General Prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud who, like Tantawi and Anan, assumed his job under the rule of Mubarak,” according to one source.
For judges, “There’s a feeling of being besieged, that they’re in the cross hairs,” said George Washington University’s Nathan Brown, who specializes in Egypt’s legal affairs.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appear firmly in control after dismissing the most senior military leaders and unilaterally seizing executive and legislative powers, writes Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama on the Middle East.
On the plus side, “Morsi has imposed civilian leadership on Egypt” although “non-Islamists are more prone to see recent actions as the Muslim Brotherhood removing any checks on its power,” he writes in today’s Washington Post.
“None of this means that Egypt’s path of change is foreordained. It does mean that the president, who has largely surrounded himself with members of the Muslim Brotherhood or sympathizers, dominates all of Egypt’s institutions of power.”
Leading liberal Amr Hamzawy (left), head of Egypt’s Freedom Party, has called on Morsi to reconstitute the more inclusive constituent committee, charging that his appropriation of both legislative and executive authorities is anti- democratic. The president should specify a date for parliamentary elections and give guarantees for freedom of speech and judicial independence, he said.
The new justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, justifies purging courts of Mubarak-era jurists.
“Judges are a society that want cleansing….The judges will cleanse themselves, not me. I will just remove the immunity of judges who are corrupt,” Mekki told the Wall Street Journal:
Some critics fear that they could help Islamists hold broader control of state institutions than Mr. Mubarak did. The push to shake up Egypt’s judiciary comes as the country is preparing to draft its first post-revolutionary constitution and hold new parliamentary elections.
“Morsi is trying to do to the judiciary the same thing he’s doing to the military,” said the Hariri Center’s Radwan. “The next frontier in terms of where this struggle is going to be fought is in the courts or the judiciary at large.”
Activists and analysts believe the government’s attacks on independent media and judiciary demonstrate the Brotherhood’s illiberal approach to governance.
“These are monopolistic plans,” said Sameh Ashour, president of the Lawyers’ Syndicate. “The Brotherhood wants to control all aspects of the state.”
Rights activists are also concerned about what many consider an Islamist power-grab.
“This means that now the Brothers have all the powers, whether inside the existing Constituent Assembly or in any future one, in case Morsi decides to form a new one,” complained Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Morsi will pass laws to neuter the courts, said Ashour, who alleged the Brotherhood wants power to “make decisions unchallenged so they can continue their campaign of terror against intellectuals and journalists.”
Other observers are more sanguine about recent developments:
More so than the formal handover of power in July, the move marks the end of the transitional period following Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow and the beginning of civilian rule, said Manar Shorbagy, a scholar who sits on the 100-member assembly that is drafting a new constitution.
“This was coming anyway,” she said. “The people were pushing in this direction. This was a major demand by anyone who had a part in the revolution.”
But many liberals are alarmed at the emergence of an intolerant political climate, evidenced by an edict by pro-Brotherhood cleric, Sheikh Hashem Islam, a member of the Fatwas (religious edicts) Committee of Al-Azhar Egypt’s supreme Islamic authority.
In an online video, he described a planned protest against the Brotherhood as “a revolution that starkly goes against democracy and freedom.”
“We must fight against the participants in the 24 August demonstrations, who are protesting against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Mursi and spill their blood.”
The demonstrators “would be committing high treason against their nation, God, his prophet and Muslims,” he said, adding that “if you kill them, that would be righteous.”
Nobel laureate Mohamed El-Baradei, the co-founder of Egypt’s Constitution Party, condemned the legitimizing of political murder.
“Unless those responsible are promptly prosecuted we will slide into fascism cloaked in religion,” Baradei said.
A leading analyst disputes the characterization of Islamist rule as fascistic.
But comparisons with Mubarak are “a straw man,” Washington Institute analyst Eric Trager retorts.
The fact is that #Egypt‘s revolution “has become [a]contest among blatantly undemocratic forces.”
For the Century Foundation’s Michael Hanna, “the point is that repression is the salient issue not the identity of the actor. Press censorship was bad then and it’s bad now.”
There are three reasons why Egypt’s military consented to the apparent dilution of its political power, says analyst David Gardner:
First, the Morsi presidency has the legitimacy of a democratic mandate, which the generals recognised in allowing his electoral triumph to stand. With their reputation tattered by their overweening and incompetent performance over the past 18 months, Egypt’s praetorians need a slice of that legitimacy.
Second, Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood have been tactically astute in winning over the younger generals, impatient for promotion. The seemingly eternal Field Marshal Tantawi, moreover, was chosen by Mubarak in part for his mediocrity. To hold on to his position he had to hold down any talent that could outshine him or, more to the point, build a challenge.
The third interest is common to the old guard and the new commanders: to secure immunity from prosecution; to control their own budget; and retain their tentacular business interests.
“Tantawi was threatening the presidency and not willing to put himself under the modicum of civilian rule,” said Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Center.
Several analysts describe Tantawi’s replacement, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as sharing the Islamists’ ideological outlook.
“Al-Sisi is very close to the Muslim Brotherhood’s mentality,” said Emad Gad, head of international relations at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who met the general last year. “He spoke a lot about the ethics of Islam and how we are an Islamic society, and he opposed women going to the street to demonstrate.”
Egypt needs significant external assistance and investment to realize their “renaissance plan” to revive the economy, including a $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan that the Brotherhood previously rejected, notes Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
In this respect, Morsi and the Brotherhood seem to recognize reality. But in another important regard, they appear determined to deny it. Consider that Morsi denied sending Israeli President Shimon Peres a response to a note that Peres had written him after news of the correspondence provoked a backlash in the Brotherhood over Morsi having any such contact with Israel. …. What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? That insists on living in its own reality? If nothing else, it’s clear that the group the Brotherhood is wedded to its ideology and cannot admit anything that might call its basic philosophy into question.
Known for its strategic patience, the Brotherhood is committed to a long-term strategy of gradual Islamization of society at the expense of democratic norms, some observers suggest.
“The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a patient organization,” notes FT analyst Gardner:
Having waited more than 80 years, it will doubtless see no need to rush things now. One institution it will have its sights on, however, is the army. For all its privileges, it is more attached to a generally pious society than its Turkish counterpart.
That leaves the democratic resilience that will have to be developed by citizens demanding the government, now that the power struggle with the army is in abeyance, repairs the broken economy and gets Egypt back on its feet. The time for slogans is over. Egyptians need to make the Brotherhood deliver.
Recent Ramadan power outages are among the latest signs, however, that the Brotherhood is failing to deliver.
External actors can provide assistance to help the government revitalize Egypt’s moribund economy and deliver services to its needy citizens, but only if democratic conditionalities are respected, writes Ross, a senior director on the National Security Council staff from July 2009 to December 2011:
Egypt’s president and people should also know that we are prepared to mobilize the international community, and global financial institutions, to help Egypt — but that we will only do so if Egypt’s government is prepared to play by a set of rules grounded in reality and key principles. They must respect the rights of minorities and women; they must accept political pluralism and the space for open political competition; and they must respect their international obligations, including the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
“Softening or fuzzing our response at this point might be good for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it won’t be good for Egypt,” he concludes.
*The Project on Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.