Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets and filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square today to protest the decree granting President Mohammed Morsi sweeping powers.
“The Muslim Brotherhood stole the revolution” read one banner in Tahrir. The Islamists “are a menace to the political process,” said publisher and veteran democracy advocate Hisham Kassem.
“Voices bursting through megaphones kept up chants, drawing cheers when the names of opposition leaders Hamdeen Sabahi, Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Hamzawy were shouted,” according to one account.
“Morsi is the … president who has sweeping executive (power), sweeping legislative (power) and … puts himself above the judicial branch of government,” said Hamzawy, founder of Egypt’s Freedom Party. “That is a very dangerous mix, which can only lead to a dictatorship.”
But Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, insists Morsi will not back down. ‘‘We are not rescinding the declaration,’’ he told The Associated Press:
That sets the stage for a drawn-out battle between the two sides that could throw the nation into greater turmoil. Protest organizers on a stage in the square called for another mass rally on Friday. If the Brotherhood responds with mass rallies of its own, as some of its leaders have hinted, it would raise the prospect of greater violence after a series of clashes between the two camps in recent days. ..Another flashpoint could come Sunday, when the constitutional court is due to rule on whether to dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and Islamist allies.
‘‘Then we are in the face of the challenge between the supreme court and the presidency,’’ said Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. ‘‘We are about to enter a serious conflict’’ on both the legal and street level.
Former U.S. diplomat Jamie Rubin said Morsi’s edict “brings to mind all the fears that people in that part of the world have had about the Muslim Brotherhood when it comes to democracy.”
The protesters’ ranks included Kassem, a veteran democracy advocate.
“The last time I went to Tahrir Square, as a participant, was the day after Mubarak was ousted: February 12th, 2011. But today, I am going out to join the protesters against Morsi,” he said
During Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Kassem sometimes found himself advocating on behalf of Muslim Brotherhood members who were imprisoned on trumped up charges. So, when Morsi won the presidency, Kassem was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Morsi’s decree last week changed all that.
“I have reached the position where I think the Brotherhood are not political adversaries or rivals. The Brotherhood are a menace to the political process,” said Kassem, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy: “They do not understand democracy and the minute they felt that they were unable to operate democratically, this stupid move to try and simply push everybody out and take full power.”
The largely liberal and secular demonstrators chanted slogans against Morsi and the Brotherhood, but the Islamist group warned that the opposition “should brace for millions” in support of the president.
Morsi’s controversial decree is an attempt to do to the judiciary what he did to the military, writes Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: “strip it of political power, eliminate its influence over the constituent assembly and constitution, and remove it as an obstacle to his authority.”
“But Morsi is now having to find a way to back down—asserting that his new decree is temporary and applies only to certain kinds of presidential actions—because fierce and ongoing protests, as well as judicial strikes, have made clear that this time he has overreached,” she suggests.
Morsi has officially resigned from the Brotherhood, but suspicions that it was a largely cosmetic separation appeared to be confirmed today when the Islamists launched a fierce attack on Morsi’s critics, Al-Ahram reports, accusing them of “not caring about the country’s national interests.”
“When ordinary Egyptians across the nation see pro-Mubarak [elements] protesting in Tahrir along with Islamists’ rivals, they know this isn’t January 25,” the group added. “The opposition thinks the significance of today is of Tahrir protestors; they should brace for millions in support of the elected president.”
According to Al-Ahram’s Arabic-language news website, the Brotherhood’s authoritative Guidance Bureau is mulling measures to appease protesters, but the group has so far refrained from making any public statements to this effect.
“There are signs that over the last couple of days that Morsi and the Brotherhood realized their mistake,” said Elijah Zarwan, a fellow with The European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that the protests were “a very clear illustration of how much of a political miscalculation this was.”
Opposition leaders insist that protecting the integrity of the judiciary is only the first step in a broader campaign against what Abdel Haleem Qandeil, a liberal intellectual, called “the miserable failure of the rule of the Muslim Brothers.” Morsi “unilaterally broke the contract with the people,” he declared. “We have to be ready to stand up to this group, protest to protest, square to square, and to confront the bullying.”
Monday’s announcement that Morsi might accept constraints on his prerogatives is unlikely to appease his critics.
“It has to be politically worked out. It’s clearly a way for Morsi to preserve what he really wanted plus to save face,” said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and an expert on Egypt’s legal system.
The move, if it were given legal weight, would confine Morsi’s courtroom immunity to decisions in which he is acting on behalf of the entire nation — such as going to war and signing treaties. But leaders in the region have also used such power on behalf of national security, which can be broadened to encompass far more.
The distinction “has been a slippery legal concept, because authoritarian rulers have used it in the Arab world to get away with almost anything in the last half-century,” Brown said.
Rights activists said Morsi’s statement raised “more questions than answers.”
“Right now, these are just verbal explanations that contradict the written word of the declaration, so that discrepancy needs to be settled,” he said Hossam Bahgat executive director of the Egyprian Initiative for Personal Rights, a rights group that filed a lawsuit challenging the edict’s legality.
Morsi is trying to save face and disguise a strategic retreat, said Moataz Abdel Fattah, a political scientist at Cairo University.
“He is trying to simply say, ‘I am not a new pharaoh; I am just trying to stabilize the institutions that we already have,’ ” he said. “But for the liberals, this is now their moment, and for sure they are not going to waste it, because he has given them an excellent opportunity to score.”
But it remains to be seen whether Morsi’s critics mobilize sufficient opposition to force him to retreat, says H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow at the Brookings Institution:
Instead they may have to focus on long-term plans, such as mobilizing a “no” vote in the referendum on the new constitution if they don’t support the document put forward and building a network of support for the next parliamentary elections, he says. If opposition parties are unhappy with the constitution, they could start now to mobilize a vote against it, and also begin building the grassroots support necessary to increase their representation in the next parliament.
“They’ve got a good nine to 12 months before parliamentary elections. The question is, are they going to take advantage of that?” says Hellyer. “If they really want to do this, they have to swallow their pride, accept this is a transitional phase of the revolution, which means you don’t get to mark out your turf –you have to choose a strategic objective and focus on that. And once this is done you can go back to your little squabbles and ideological differences.”
Some analysts believe the current unity within Egypt’s notoriously inchoate secular opposition will prove to be short-lived.
“This is not a united front, and I am inside it,” said Rabab el-Mahdi of the American University. “Every single political group in the country is now divided over this — is this decree revolutionary justice or building a new dictatorship? Should we align ourselves with folool” — the colloquial term for the remnants of the old political elite — “or should we be revolutionary purists? Is it a conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Mubarak judiciary, or is this the beginning of a fascist regime in the making?”
In any event, there appears to be little prospect of a rapprochement between the liberal and secular groups which initiated the revolt against Mubarak and the Islamists who proved to be the prime beneficiaries.
”There is a deep mistrust,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. ”It is an ugly round of partisan politics, a bone-crushing phase.”
The controversy has exposed the Brotherhood’s deeply authoritarian instincts, says Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. Like the communist and fascist movements of the 20th century, it is a harshly centralized and disciplined movement, primed to seize opportunistic advantage of any opportunity to advance its own sectarian interests.
“Morsi’s majoritarian mindset is not anti-democratic per se, but depends upon a distinctive conception of winner-takes-all politics and the denigration of political opposition,” the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna argues:
As opposed to mustering a more durable and broad-based consensus for change and reform, Morsi’s fateful step ensured that the divisions that have marred the post-Mubarak era will only be heightened and more irreconcilable. More broadly, this recurrent pattern raises fundamental questions about the Brotherhood’s commitment to an inclusive democratic process in which compromise and consensus are necessary ingredients. At root, the Muslim Brotherhood believes that it represents the authentic voice of Egyptian society and that its years of repression and its impressive electoral victories have invested it with the right to implement its agenda. As opposed to undertaking the arduous and difficult task of negotiating consensus outcomes, the Brotherhood now seems intent on eschewing the give and take of democratic politics and monopolizing political power.
But some observers believe that Egyptians have come too far to cede newly-won freedoms, even temporarily, and that the current standoff reflects deeper fears about the Brotherhood’s hidden agenda.
“The current standoff between Morsi and the courts reveals that Egyptians no longer accept an authoritarian leader, whether an Islamist or a secular autocrat like Hosni Mubarak,” writes Jeffrey Fleishman. “The deeper misgivings by liberals and non-Muslims are that Morsi is advancing a political Islam that aims to gradually expand sharia law to alter the nation’s character and limit civil and religious freedoms.”
A similar point is made by Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook, who believes the protests are likely to continue.
“No one doubted that there would be setbacks in Egypt’s transition, but Morsi and his Brothers have failed to grasp that after 60 years of suffering under strongmen, Egyptians will not tolerate authoritarian detours in the name of democracy,” he notes.
“Wasn’t the State of Emergency temporary? Weren’t Mubarak and the National Democratic Party always employing authoritarian measures ‘to prepare the country for democracy’? For the Egyptians who have turned out into the streets to protest Morsi’s decree, it all seems depressingly familiar, right down to the violence the government has employed to suppress them.”
The Obama administration “appears disinclined from pressing Morsi publicly on domestic matters, apparently still believing that this will achieve Morsi’s cooperation on foreign policy,” writes Eric Trager, citing what he calls “the State Department’s vanilla statement” calling on Egyptians “to resolve their differences … peacefully and through democratic dialogue.”
“Yet Morsi’s constitutional declarations make ‘democratic dialogue’ virtually impossible, because it insulates Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from all meaningful checks on their authority,” says Trager, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
Moreover, Washington’s soft approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t moderating its violent ambitions. Witness, for example, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie’s statement … that, “It’s Muslims’ duty to work to recover Palestine through all means and capabilities, first and foremost by preparing for force.” Or the Brotherhood party’s call for unilaterally amending the peace treaty with Israel. Or Brotherhood foreign relations official Mohamed Sudan’s recent announcement that Morsi is “cancelling normalization with the Zionist entity gradually.”
“Washington must press Morsi to reverse course now,” he suggests. “Specifically, it should use its economic aid and influence within the International Monetary Fund, from which Egypt is seeking a $4.8 billion loan, as leverage for confronting Morsi with hard decisions that might lead him to moderate his behavior.”
Morsi’s decree against the judiciary “attempts to strip that institution of its proper role as a balance to the executive branch,” writes Dunne. “That role is all the more important because there is currently no lower house of parliament.”
The part of Morsi’s decree that extended the mandate of the constituent assembly was perhaps justified, as he tried to remove at least one source of pressure on the conflict-ridden assembly. And his desire to replace the Mubarak era prosecutor general in itself was also understandable. But attempting to place the constituent assembly—and, even more alarming, all of his own decisions as president—beyond the reach of the courts went too far. His claim that the decree was temporary rang hollow, and the attempt to throw a bone to non-Islamist activists by reopening prosecutions related to violence against them was too transparent.
“It is to be hoped that he will learn that there are limits that even a democratically elected president in a chaotic post-revolutionary transition should not transgress,” says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.