“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi faces the prospect of widening civil disobedience as media and the tourism industry pondered measures to join a protest by judges against the Islamist leader,” AP reports.
But allies of Morsi, dubbed ‘Morsillini’ by Egyptian bloggers, insist that the Supreme Judicial Council will supervise the coming referendum on a draft constitution, Reuters reports, although judges are calling for a boycott, angered by what they see as a power-grab by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The influential but unofficial Judges Club urged colleagues on Sunday to shun the referendum which Morsi hopes will douse anger over a decree he issued on Nov. 22, greatly expanding his powers and temporarily putting himself above the law. Such a boycott, even if not all judges joined it, could undermine the credibility of the plebiscite and worsen disputes that have plagued Egypt’s path to political change since a popular revolt overthrew Hosni Mubarak nearly 22 months ago.
The judiciary, like Egyptian society at large, is split over the vote on the constitution, the way in which it was drafted and Mursi’s decree, seen by his opponents as a power grab and by his supporters as necessary to keep the transition on track.
“The Supreme Judicial Council has met and agreed to delegate judges to oversee the constitutional referendum,” Mohamed Gadallah, the legal adviser to Mursi, told Reuters.
Judge Yousseri Abdel-Karim, a former spokesman of the electoral commission, doubted that the judges would oversee the referendum.
“Judges don’t retreat and we fear nothing and we will not change our position,” he said.
Protests by Muslim Brotherhood members forced the supreme court to adjourn its work indefinitely on Sunday, intensifying the conflict that pits secular and liberal Egyptians against the Islamists.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to go ahead with its own plans regardless of everybody else. There is no compromise on the horizon,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Sunday’s confrontation was all the more perplexing and distressing because Morsi had seemed in recent days to be winning his battle with the judiciary, said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch:
Morayef said that although the judiciary needs reform, Morsi’s tactics were counterproductive in achieving a goal that most of the country supports.
“To choose to do that at a time like this, it’s not just adding insult to injury, this is a full onslaught,” she said. “Intimidation of judges is an extremely serious matter. For Morsi’s party to be involved in that is a terrifying precedent. We do not want to get into a situation where those who criticize the president have to fear for their lives.”
Brotherhood members in the Constitutional Assembly are targeting one judge who is openly concerned about the group’s attempt to monopolize power, The New York Times reports:
Egyptian state news media reported the existence of a little-noticed clause tucked into the draft constitution that appears to single out Judge Gebali, the Islamists’ bête noire, for removal from the bench. The provision would keep the president of the court and its 10 most senior judges, but remove more junior members, and the 11th in seniority — the first who would be forced off the bench — is Judge Gebali.
“She makes no secret of her concern about the rise of the Islamists, and Islamists have come to see her as a justice who rules on the basis of her political preferences,” said Nathan Brown, a scholar of the Egyptian legal system at George Washington University. “If the constitution is passed and goes into effect, she will lose her position on the bench immediately because of a clause that seems designed with one purpose in mind: to dismiss her.”
Observers believe the Brotherhood has placed itself above the law by laying siege to the Constitutional Court.
Sunday’s demonstration was criminal, said Khaled Abu Bakr, a legal expert with the International Union of Lawyers.
“The president and the Interior Ministry should protect judicial institutions and enable the judges to do their jobs,” he said.
“There is a battle between the constitutional court and the president,” he said. “Even the head of the constitution-drafting assembly session said that we are practicing constitutional revenge.”
Liberal analyst and former parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy (left) warns that the situation could still deteriorate, AP reports.
“The president and his group (the Muslim Brotherhood) are leading Egypt into a period of darkness par excellence,” he said. “He made a dictatorial decision to hold a referendum on an illegal constitution that divides society, then a siege of the judiciary to terrorize it.”
The opposition is raising the stakes with plans to march on Morsi’ palace on Tuesday, a move last seen on Feb. 11, 2011 when tens of thousands of protesters marched from Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s palace in the Heliopolis district to force him out. Mubarak stepped down that day, but Morsi is highly unlikely to follow suit on Tuesday.
The latest events indicate that Egypt is moving towards illiberal democracy, says Harvard’s Tarek Masoud.
“[W]hen we look at democracy, we don’t really just care about the voting. The voting’s important,” he said. “But we care about freedom and liberty for people. Then, you would have to think that Egypt is really not going in the right direction.”
Some observers believe the Brotherhood may be exaggerating the degree of public support for its authoritarian stance.
“Judging by the results of the last parliamentary election, Islamists are possibly in a minority, certainly not an overwhelming majority. However, they are much better organised than the liberals, and may be better at getting their supporters to the polls,” writes BBC analyst Jon Leyne.
The standoff also presents a strategic challenge to the liberal and secular opposition.
“It is clear Morsi decided that it was time for hard action and that he is listening to hawkish advisors,” said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in Arab politics at the University of Exeter. “Even if he could not have contained the polarisation in society, he could have lessened it by better communication and making some concessions on the constitutional panel.”
Morsi can rely on the superior organisational abilities of his Muslim Brotherhood group and allied ultraconservative Salafi parties which have been careful to project the message that support for the president means support for Islam and for stability. Analysts say that many Egyptians, who are yearning for an end to political turmoil, are likely to vote ‘Yes’ in a referendum on the constitution, in the belief that it will help the economy and encourage investment.
“The anti-Morsi forces are faced with a big challenge,” said Mr Ashour. “The main issue behind their weakness is that they do not provide an alternative route. So even if they manage to stop the referendum, what next?”
“Also their command is decentralized because they are composed of disparate groups, democrats, leftists, liberals and even people who are known for having supported military rule and the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.”
The current conflict is bad news for Egypt and for the Brotherhood, writes George Washington University’s Nathan Brown:
The problems do not lie so much in the content of the constitution, which is filled more with missed opportunities than egregious authoritarianism. But that document, if it passes, will have to operate in a very difficult atmosphere. Rival camps have now formed and are preparing to face off in every arena: not merely at the polls but in the press, the courts, and the streets. Only a continued aversion to violence and a fear that civil disorder could drag the army back are preventing more violent struggle.
The Brotherhood is also likely to be damaged by the standoff, says Brown: had its leaders not panicked, they probably would have received the constitution they …. And likely electoral victories would have allowed them to take their place at the head of a political system that was functioning and accepted as legitimate. As it is, they may win but the society will be deeply divided and an important part of the state—the judiciary—is forgetting its stodgy ways and rising up in defiance of the president.
Morsi’s edict, which placed most of his actions beyond judicial review, set the stage for the current conflict, says a leading analyst.
“Unfortunately, Morsi has made a mistake, which is that he has become understandably frustrated with how difficult it is to move the political process forward in Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“He decided he needed to step in and enforce his will to make something happen, rather than compromise. However, it is important for Morsi to realize it’s not only the text of the constitution that will establish its legitimacy but the process by which that text was reached. And that process fell apart.”
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers and the more ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party have called for large demonstrations of support for him Saturday, a sign that they are willing to battle for a kind of legitimacy in the street that they failed to achieve through the courts or compromise.
“This is definitely a moment of high tension and high anxiety,” said Dunne.* “Particularly if you start to have large crowds of demonstrators along this secular-Islamist divide really attacking each other. That would be truly distressing, and some people have started to speculate about whether the military would step in once again.”
Morsi’s biography, especially his association with some of the Brotherhood’s more extreme members, should have alerted observers to his authoritarian instincts, says Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief internal enforcer within the Guidance Office, steering the organization in a more hardline direction ideologically while purging the Brotherhood of individuals who disagreed with his approach,” he writes in The New Republic:
While Morsi’s bare-knuckles approach alienated Muslim Brothers who wanted the organization to remain focused on dawa, or Islamic preaching and the provision of social services, it impressed those Brotherhood leaders who wanted the organization to undertake a more political role. Known as Qutbists for their adherence to radical Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb’s politicized interpretation of Islam, these Brotherhood leaders emphasize “the necessity of developing a detached vanguard that focuses on recruitment and empowering the organization,” according to former Muslim Brother Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. Though generally distancing themselves from Qutb’s embrace of violent jihad, Brotherhood Qutbists view ideological uniformity as essential to the Brotherhood’s efficient pursuit of power, and therefore embraced Morsi’s anti-pluralistic policies by giving him important political responsibilities…..For example, in 2007, the Qutbists appointed Morsi to handle its dealings with the Mubarak regime’s repressive state security apparatus, apparently believing that his ideological rigidity and prickly demeanor towards outsiders would make him unlikely to concede anything.
*Michele Dunne is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.