President Mohamed Morsi has ordered Egypt’s army to assume police powers, including the right to arrest civilians. The move comes on the eve of mass rival demonstrations on the controversial draft constitution.
It orders the military to fully cooperate with police “to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum,” according to a copy obtained by AFP.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and professor at George Washington University. “When I read the text of the decree it looks like the military’s job is to provide security during the voting process at a time when security has been compromised, when there is the possibility of disruption at the polls and clashes. But in Egypt, anytime you bring in the military, it has political overtones that set people on edge — for good reason.”
Other analysts will likely seize on the move as confirmation that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is adopting the same methods as Hosni Mubarak.
“Recent developments suggest that Morsi and his band of illiberal brothers are supporting free elections to perpetuate their own brand of illiberal democracy,” says Mohamed Elmenshawy, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C, who writes a weekly column for the Egyptian Daily Alshorouk.
A statement issued by the military over the weekend said a solution to the political crisis should not contradict “legitimacy and the rules of democracy”.
“The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus,” it added. “The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow.”
The military’s statement was addressed “as much to the Muslim Brotherhood as to the liberals,” said analyst Hassan Nafaa.
Growing opposition to Morsi’s rule probably prompted the generals to “inform him that they cannot continue to keep the peace and that he should make serious concessions to the opposition,” said Wayne White, a former senior US State Department intelligence official now a policy expert with Washington’s Middle East Policy Council.
But direct military intervention is unlikely, says Hassan Abu Taleb of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“They realise that interfering again in a situation of civil combat will squeeze them between two rocks,” he said.
Three preconditions for dialog were outlined by former liberal MP Amr Hamzawy:
Firstly he demanded that the referendum be postponed and the timeframe for the process of ratifying a constitution, which many have claimed to be rushed, be reconsidered. Secondly, he rejected the president’s approach in his address, which did not condemn the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence and deaths that took place. Thirdly, he disapproved of the president’s failure to reconstruct the Constituent Assembly to make it more representative.
Egypt’s opposition has three options, says the Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy: boycott the referendum, galvanize the “no” vote, or keep demonstrating to prevent the referendum taking place.
Opposition factions are still discussing whether to boycott the referendum or call for a “no” vote, said Lamia Kamel, a spokeswoman for former Arab League chief Amr Moussa:
“Both paths are unwelcome because they really don’t want the referendum at all,” she said, but predicted a clearer opposition line if the plebiscite went ahead as planned.
“We do not acknowledge the referendum. The aim is to change the decision and postpone it,” said a spokeswoman for Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
The deteriorating constitutional crisis demonstrates that majority rule “might be healthy in a well-functioning democracy, but not when a country is still trying to design a widely accepted system — it creates many sore losers and shuts out voices that need to be heard at the beginning of the process,” says a leading analyst.
Egypt’s Muslin Brotherhood has been “willing to throw some concessions to their rivals but not enough to truly bring them along,” notes GWU analyst Brown, an expert on Egyptian constitutional law.
“Even had the Islamists been willing to give more, it is not clear that there was any good-faith bargain to be had, since some members of the opposition have simply rejected earlier electoral outcomes as ‘unrepresentative,’” he writes for Foreign Affairs.
Whether the controversial draft constitution becomes “the basis for a pluralistic system or a tool for a standing Islamist majority depends on five key factors,” Brown contends:
First, the laws that are developed to give the constitution’s clauses concrete meanings are important. The document’s more liberal provisions will require the rewriting of large areas of Egyptian law that are currently authoritarian, such as those governing the press and nongovernmental organizations……
Elections will be a second battleground. If opposition forces that reject the constitution boycott future polling, they will leave the field open to Islamists. Even if they do compete, however, the payoff for them might be slow. Non-Islamist groups have shown a great ability to galvanize thousands of protestors, but they have not yet shown any inclination to begin the hard work of mobilizing millions for the polls. As long as elections are tilted toward Islamists, steps toward democracy will be steps toward continued Islamist rule.
Third, the ways in which Egypt’s elected rulers reshape state institutions — the military, religious institutions, and the courts — will be critical for determining the constitution’s meaning in practice. The military won considerable autonomy in the constitution, much more than 2011′s revolutionaries had hoped. The Brotherhood has been clear about its intentions: civilian oversight is a long-term goal, not an immediate priority. And perhaps over time, the generals, who are fairly conservative, might grow accustomed to Islamist rule…..For now, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court will retain its chief and its ten most senior justices……The court has clashed with Egypt’s rising Islamist forces several times this year. But as the court’s judges gradually retire, the parliament might write a law ensuring that more pliable figures take their places.
The fourth key point is the question of who will interpret and apply the constitution’s Islamic provisions. There are, at first glance, few differences between the clauses in this draft and those in the 1971 constitution. But the meaning of constitutional articles can change according to who is in charge of upholding the document. …..
The final issue will be whether the constitution is used to whittle down the country’s domineering presidency. From the first days of the Egyptian uprising, all political forces agreed that the authoritarianism that had ruled their country uninhibited for six decades should be curbed. But it is not clear that the drafters have provided many tools for that job. The constitution is more presidential than might have been expected, and it leaves some powerful mechanisms in the president’s hands.
All of the main protagonists claim democratic credentials, “but the viability of Egyptian democracy depends not on real or claimed intentions but on healthy processes, accepted rules, and well-designed structures. And that should give us little reassurance,” Brown argues:
Already, the institutional wreckage and political damage is extensive and will be difficult to overcome. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to take on absolute authority — even on an interim basis — and the rushed production of a final draft of the constitution have not only led to clashes in the streets but also to contests among Egyptian state bodies.
For one, the country’s professional associations are badly split between supporters of the Islamist government and their opponents. Civil war in the labor unions might be brewing. The judiciary has risen in protest, and it is difficult to see how the institution, which had managed to maintain some autonomy even during Egypt’s most authoritarian periods, could emerge unscathed. In turn, the country’s electoral machinery might be badly damaged, because it depends on the oversight of the deeply offended judges.
If that happens, he warned, it would “set up the country for prolonged instability.”
The current conflict “isn’t really about Morsi and his surprise decree” but more fundamental divisions over Egypt’s political trajectory, says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre: should Egypt become more Islamist or remain a largely civil state with “secular, more neutral underpinnings?”
“The (draft) constitution has a few Islamically-flavored articles, but for the most part it is a mediocre — and somewhat boring — document, based as it was on the similarly mediocre 1971 constitution,” Hamid said.
“‘Islamists’ and ‘non-Islamists’ may hate each other, but, on substance, the gap isn’t currently as large as it might be … In the longer run, however, the consensus that so many seem to be searching and hoping for may not actually exist.”