Egypt is facing a “political earthquake” after the constitutional court today insisted that its earlier ruling to dissolve parliament must stand, and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood began to mobilize for “a million-man march” to coincide with Tuesday’s re-opening of the disbanded Islamist-dominated assembly.
“We are not trying to force the country into an inferno of political battles,” said Mourad Ali, a Brotherhood spokesman, but recent events raise the risk of violent conflict, say analysts.
“We will probably see some of the military banning the MPs from entering the parliament, and Tahrir will fill again … and then it’s time to see who blinks first,” says Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The court decision is “ratcheting up a confrontation” between newly-elected president Mohammed Morsi (right), who yesterday decreed that parliament should reconvene, and the military, which today – in an apparent swipe at the president – said that it was “confident all state institutions” will respect the law and constitution.
“In a clear sign of an impending confrontation,” the FT’s Heba Saleh reports, the military “fired a shot across the bows” of Morsi, “saying it had dissolved parliament only to respect the court’s ruling.”
“It’s surprising how soon this has happened, but a conflict between the military and Muslim Brotherhood has been expected for a while,” said Eric Trager, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is in Cairo. “Political confrontation will be a feature for the foreseeable future.”
Morsi’s decree represents an attempt to establish his authority and legitimacy in a direct challenge to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, says Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“It is now clear that Morsi has no intention of accepting the admittedly humiliating conditions the SCAF attached to his presidency,” she says.
“If what Morsi has done is to counter a soft coup by the SCAF that took place just before his inauguration, the question now is whether the military will mount a counter coup of some kind against Morsi and if so, how,” she notes. “Another important question is whether the parliament will succeed in reconvening a quorum and, if so, whether it has an agenda of legal steps it plans to take in an attempt to outflank the SCAF and constitutional court. “
Morsi is flexing the muscles of the presidency, said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist politics at the UK’s Durham University.
“Regardless of the underlying reasons behind Morsi’s decree, it’s a bold and significant step from Morsi to show his powerful presidency. Until we know the reaction of SCAF, this decree reflects Morsi’s sense of self-assertiveness and confidence,” he said. “The question is to what extent Morsi can defy the military and challenge their power.”
The military is struggling to establish the constitutional red lines required to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from monopolizing political power, says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation.
“Whether its heavy-handed marshaling of Egypt’s transition exemplifies a stroke of evil genius or bungling impulsiveness,” according to one assessment of the military’s outlook.
“In recent days, it has become clear that we have underestimated SCAF’s ideological viewpoints,” said Hanna. The military is “not going to turn over the government to the [Muslim Brotherhood]. They are just not going to do it… The big question will be, where are those red lines that Morsi can’t cross. The Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Justice are off limits.”
“It’s extremely uncertain where this will lead,” said veteran political analyst Hani Shukrallah, editor of the state-run Al Ahram newspaper. “On the face of it, it’s a very strong insult to the military and the Supreme Constitutional Court.’
“What we’re talking about here is not really the legalities of the situation, but power relations. How far is each side willing to push the other?” he said.
But the Islamists’ power play has been criticized by secular democrats, human rights groups and independent analysts.
Morsi’s recall of the assembly was a “violation of judicial power,” said the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, while liberal MP Amr Hamzawy criticized the decree as a violation of “the primacy of law.”
“The decree could create a political crisis,” Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer, told the New York Times. “He has been waiting to make a decision to prove he is president of a republic.”
Hafez Abu Saada (right), a lawyer and head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, tells VOA he believes the president could have handled this differently and has now created a politically fraught situation. He says he believes this could have been dealt with in different ways, but that it is a clash and it could mean the emergence of a kind of cold war between the presidency, the military council and civil forces.
The standoff has ominous implications for the democratic transition, says a leading expert on Egyptian constitutional law.
“I think this is a possible train wreck,” said Nathan Brown. “The judiciary will probably circle the wagons and refuse to enforce any parliamentary law. The SCAF will claim legislative authority but its laws will be under a cloud. How will you even write a new election law in such a context? Or pass a law on the referendum for the constitution?”
The decree “certainly amounts to a confrontation with the judiciary,” said Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University. “It probably amounts to a very bold confrontation with the SCAF as well, though we don’t know what understanding may have been reached there.”
According to a European diplomatic source, recalling parliament gave Morsi leverage over the military, but could also placate Islamists who dominate the assembly so that Morsi would have a freer hand to pick a broader cabinet with non-Islamist members.
“The test will come when we see how the soldiers guarding the parliament building behave when MPs try to convene,” the source said.
The timing of the president’s decree, days before a visit to Cairo by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is significant, said Fahmy Howeidi, a columnist with the independent daily ElShorouk.
“I think this decision could have been delayed, but why did he decide to declare or to decide about the parliament before his departure to Saudi Arabia? Is he sending a message saying he is the real ruler, not the military? You know that Washington criticized the military for their latest statement [dissolving parliament], so was he encouraged by this criticism, in order to embarrass the military?”
Egypt can rely on U.S. support for its democratic transition, says U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, hinting that financial assistance will be contingent on respect for human rights and democratic institutions.
“Egyptians know far better than we do that their aspirations are not yet fully realized, but they can count on America’s partnership on the complicated road ahead,” Burns said, stressing U.S. support for a democratically elected parliament, a constitution that protects “universal rights” and an inclusive government that “embraces all of Egypt’s faiths and respects the rights of women and secular members of society.”
Burns met Morsi at the presidential palace on Sunday, “signaling the new ties Washington is forging with resurgent Islamists in the region,” reports suggest:
Burns pledged that the United States, which grants the Egyptian armed forces $1.3 billion a year in military aid, would support Egypt’s economy, which has been hemorrhaging cash and is heading for a balance of payments and budget crisis.
Once a darling of emerging market fund managers, Egypt has watched foreign investors flee and its vital tourist trade has taken a big knock from the turmoil of the last year and a half.
Foreign reserves have plunged to about $15.5 billion, less than half their level before anti-Mubarak protests erupted, and the government has been forced to pay double-digit interest rates, seen as unsustainable, to fund its spending.
“Already domestic financing has reached a critical stage where you can’t rely totally on the market anymore,” said one Western diplomat. The government was running up payment arrears with energy suppliers and raising funds from the central bank, the diplomat noted – tactics sustainable only for a short time.
“Difficult days ahead for Egyptians and difficult decisions for Washington, which had been eager, along with much of the world, to believe that Morsi’s election was finally putting the Egyptian transition on a firmer footing,” she notes.
But the president’s forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia indicates that the Brotherhood is also pursuing alternatives to Western assistance that are likely to be less insistent on respect for democratic rights, says Hisham Kassem (left), a veteran analyst and rights activist.
“Given Morsi’s political persuasion and aversion to international monetary institutions, I think he will try and get basically Islamic-backed economic backing, as opposed to other monetary institutions, that they might consider dealings with them to be anti-Islamic or usury,” he said:
Unemployment is high in Egypt and chairman of the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Center Abdulaziz Sager says encouraging Saudi Arabia’s private sector to invest in Egypt is likely to top Morsi’s agenda.
“I am sure he wants to attract them again to continue their investments in Egypt and to assure them of the stability and the political stability in Egypt,” said Sager. “At [the] same time, also if he can increase the sort of export of manpower from Egypt to Saudi Arabia that will help, because the remittances from Egyptian laborers to Egypt in Saudi is quite significant also.”
Sager says Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to show serious economic support for Egypt, committing more than $4.5 billion to the country. Saudi Arabia is also a major shareholder in the Islamic Development Bank, which signed a $1 billion cooperation agreement last week with Egypt to support its food and energy sectors.
Kassem says Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, may also see in Saudi Arabia a potential lender with similar Islamic values.
“They [the Saudis] will be very interested in maintaining good relations with Egypt as they did with Mubarak. It is in everyone’s interest,” said Kassem, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.
The confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood demonstrates that Egypt’s illiberal actors are driving the political agenda, activists and analysts note, while democratic forces remain largely marginal.
The underlying dynamics of Egyptian politics have changed little, says Georgetown Professor Samer Shehata, who notes that the “tremendous weight of the Egyptian state” poses a threat to widespread reform.
“It’s going to be difficult and long going to make significant progress… considering the weight of the 6 million person Egyptian state [bureaucracy].”
“Morsi’s power play will determine whether the generals’ constitutional declaration will stand,” analysts suggest:
If it stands, the military will have not just the powers of the legislature but also the authority to steer the drafting of the new constitution. In the bigger picture, this may be a test case that determines the role of the military in post-Mubarak Egypt — whether the country will follow the “Turkish model” of the 1980s and 1990s in which the army could block civilian governments from acting against its wishes — or whether the army will be subordinate to an elected president and legislature, Islamist or otherwise.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Morsi has the legitimacy from being the country’s first-ever freely elected president, and Brotherhood supporters in the past have threatened a “second revolution” if the army tries to hold on to power. The military, on the other hand, has the top court on its side — and, of course, the ability to put tanks on the streets. Over the past 17 months, neither side has shown a willingness to push a crisis over the breaking point, however, and there are a number of ways that this conflict could be defused. Morsi also announced that there would be new elections after a constitution is adopted, and parliament could meet once or twice and then go into recess. But Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition has been wildly unpredictable so far, and few analysts would venture with any confidence what will happen next.
The Project on Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, adds:
Morsi Issues Decree to Reinstate Parliament
On Sunday, President Morsi issued a decree that reinstated parliament and called for fresh elections within 60 days of the ratification of the country’s new constitution. Morsi’s decision was met with praise and outrage, with opponents saying the president’s decision violates the rule of law and is a step towards autocracy. Supporters say that Morsi has every right to call for the parliament to reconvene and that legislative authority is now back in the hands of elected officials rather than the military. Protesters on both sides gathered in response to the decision, with demonstrations in Tahrir Square in support of the president and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Nasr City against the decree. Mohamed ElBaradei responded to the decision by Egypt’s president saying “The executive decision to overrule the HCC decision is turning Egypt from a government of law into a government of men.” Writer Alaa El Aswani noted, “legislative prerogatives should be in the hands of the people – not the generals.” The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held an emergency meeting yesterday to discuss the decision by Egypt’s new president. Anonymous sources from SCAF told Egyptian media that the decision was a complete surprise to everyone, including the military council. Some analysts have speculated that Morsi had the approval of SCAF to reinstate parliament as the move satisfies the Brotherhood’s desire to see the parliament it dominates back in force as well as SCAF’s preference for new elections in the near-term. After it held an emergency meeting today in response to Morsi’s decree, the SCC said that its decisions were final and binding on all state authorities. The SCC will hear appeals to the decision dissolving parliament Tuesday.
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“Morsy decision to reinstate Parliament stirs demonstrations,” Egypt Independent (English) 7/9/2012.
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“Morsi’s decision does not conflict with law, Judge Khoderi says,” Aswat Masriya (English) 7/8/2012.
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