You are here

Egypt in Crisis: Learning the Hard Lessons of Democracy

Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • December 08, 2012

    Only a fortnight ago Egypt was being hailed as a resurgent power in the Arab world when it successfully negotiated a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on November 21. Time magazine even included President Morsi as a candidate for the “Person of the Year” contest among 40 short listed prominent personalities in the world.1 Things, however, suddenly changed when Morsi announced on November 22 a decree giving himself sweeping powers and immunity from legal oversight. Under the new decree, described as temporary until the new constitution is drawn up – a process that has been extended by two months – the president is "authorised to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve the revolution, to preserve national unity or to safeguard national security."2 Morsi argues that these powers are temporary and that they are necessary to safeguard the democratization process and to ensure that the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the new constitution is not dissolved and overthrown by the courts.

    The decree has sparked off protests reminiscent of those in January 2011 that led to the ouster of Mubarak. What started as ‘Go Mubarak, go’ in January 2011 is now turning into ‘Go Morsi, go’. The opposition has charged Morsi of taking the first steps towards becoming a dictator. Mohammed ElBaradei, who has emerged as the opposition's new leader, said Morsi bore "full responsibility" for the violence and added that "A regime that is not able to protect its people and is siding with his own sect and thugs is a regime that lost its legitimacy and is leading Egypt into violence and bloodshed.”3

    The unfolding situation has given rise to several questions that Egypt has to find answers for:

    • What has led to this sudden change of situation in Egypt?
    • Could it lead to Morsi surrendering his recently acquired powers and thereafter the Supreme Court ordering another Constituent Assembly?
    • Does it mean that Morsi will have to resign and thereby take the process of democratization back to where it started in February 2011 post the ouster of Mubarak?
    • With the current developments, what would be the future discourse of politics and governance in Egypt? Could it prompt the Armed forces to take control of the country akin to what the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) did after the ouster of Mubarak?

    The Constituent Assembly and New Draft Constitution

    The Constituent Assembly and the newly drafted constitution are at the core of the current turmoil in Egypt. Ever since it was constituted, the Constituent Assembly has been a bone of contention, debate and disagreement. The opposition and the minorities allege that it is dominated by Islamists and is therefore forging ahead an Islamic agenda. It has already been dissolved once in April 20124 by the courts when it was dominated by the Islamists. It also had many parliamentarians, which was contrary to the provisions of the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration prohibiting the presence of MPs in the Constituent Assembly.5 Even in its second avatar, the Constituent Assembly has faced strong protests and opposition mainly because of the presence of 60 Islamists out of a total of 100 members.6 This has given credence to the charge that the Islamists could hijack the constitution since 67 votes in favour are required to pass each article of the constitution. Also, the opposition argues that the Constituent Assembly was formed on 14 July well after the dissolution on 14 June of the Parliament Assembly7 which had formed it, thus rendering it illegitimate.

    The draft constitution that was rushed through after Morsi’s decree, too, has raised several questions. Some of the contentious issues are8:

    • The role of women in society. The draft does say in the preamble that “Equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women…” The emphasis in Article 10 is, however, on preserving “the genuine character of the Egyptian family…” – not so subtle a code for confining women to a traditional role.
    • With respect to religious freedom, the draft constitution says, “The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions [also translated as “monotheistic religions ie Islam, Christianity, and Judaism”], as regulated by law.” This is a step back from the 1971 constitution, which did not restrict religious freedom. Some fear that this article will further imperil already embattled religious minorities, such as Egypt’s Baha’is.
    • The draft constitution’s implications for freedom of speech are also worrisome. Of particular concern to journalists are provisions that ban blasphemy and certain forms of “insult,” seem to give the government a heavy hand in editorial control; as well as potential, if still ambiguous, limitations on press freedom in accordance with the “requirements of national security” and “the basic principles of the State and society,” as explained in Article 48.

    There are several other contentious issues that are being strongly opposed. One of the most controversial one is the role of Islam in the state9 and the specific wording that would be used in the constitution to define how sharia relates to legislation. The draft preserved the wording of the previous constitution: “The principles of sharia are the main source of legislation”. However, they also added another clause specifying that the principles of sharia should be in accordance with the established schools of Sunni Muslim doctrine. This limits the discretion given to judges in deciding on sharia issues, and could limit them from applying a progressive interpretation of the sharia. Also included is an article stipulating that scholars of Al Azhar, the university and mosque considered one of the most respected centres of Sunni Muslim research and learning, be consulted on matters of sharia. This is the first time that a consultative role for Al Azhar has been enshrined in Egypt's constitution.

    The new constitution also guarantees the Egyptian military many of the prerogatives it had sought to maintain.10 The military's budget is protected from parliamentary oversight. The constitution provides for the establishment of a National Defence Council, which will oversee the defence budget and should be consulted on laws relating to the military. It mandates that the post of defence minister be filled by a military officer. And it allows the continuation of military trials for civilians. Civilians may be tried before military courts for crimes that harm the military "as defined by law."

    Morsi’s Fears and Compulsions

    While the contentious articles devised by the Constituent Assembly may be more to do with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its vision for Egypt in the coming decades, Morsi has been clearly and more overtly concerned over the finalization of the constitution and progress of the democratic process. The dissolution of the Parliament Assembly in June 2011, dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly in April 2012, frequent threat of dissolution of the second Constituent Assembly (the present one), constant boycott of the proceedings of Constituent Assembly by Salafists, liberals and Coptic Christians, and finally the threat by the Constitutional Court to dismiss the Constituent Assembly during its hearing on 02 December, all may have prompted Morsi to hasten the process of drafting the constitution. Failure of the courts dominated by Mubarak-era judges to convict any of the accused masterminds of crimes during the protests in January 2011 also added to Morsi’s anguish. Morsi also understands that economic aid will flow into the country only if there is a semblance of democracy. As he said during a televised address on 30 November,11 he expected to call for an almost immediate referendum on the draft constitution to help bring Egypt’s chaotic political transition to a close — “a difficult birth from the womb of an ancient nation.”

    Having called for a referendum on the draft constitution on 15 December, it is clear that Morsi wants the process of evolution of democracy to move forward, even with shortfalls and deficiencies which could be fixed later. He has tried to reassure the opposition and the protestors that his enhanced powers are only temporary and only on sovereign issues of national interest.

    The Opposition’s Stance

    The opposition led by Mohammed ElBaradei is clear that there can be no movement forward until Morsi withdraws his enhanced powers and calls for redrafting of the constitution. The protests have grown over the week and have already led to the death of nine people and injuries to over 650. On 5 December, the protestors scaled the walls of the presidential palace and, on 6 December, the Army had to even deploy armoured tanks to disperse the mob.

    Uncertain Future of Democracy in Egypt

    Presently, there does not seem to be any compromise in sight. The same Egyptians who had rallied together against Mubarak a year ago are today split down the middle between two opposing camps. The current situation has also given an opportunity for factional groups to pursue their individual agenda. The government alleges that there is external involvement in the political chaos and the nation should rally together to defeat it. With none of the opposing sides budging, the country faces an uncertain future and a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Morsi is likely to go ahead with the referendum on 15 December. The Muslim Brotherhood with its large support base at the grass roots level is likely to muster adequate support for the referendum. Morsi would, most likely, relinquish his enhanced powers after the successful referendum and call for early Parliamentary elections. This could lead to some cooling of tempers. However, if the courts then overrule the referendum, more chaos could follow. In such a scenario, it is likely that Morsi could be forced to resign and a SCAF-like structure set up again to restart the whole process.

    Whatever unfolds, Egypt is slowly realizing that democracy is not an easily procured fruit, especially in a nation where political movements have been suppressed for decades and peoples’ sentiments can be easily swayed either way. However, the process of democratization and peoples’ awakening seems irreversible. With trial and error, protests and retributions, repeated dismissals of governments, parliaments and constitution, Egyptians will eventually find the correct formula for themselves. The only question is of time, economics and probably human cost.