The Egyptian People's Evolving Power

(Egyptian Republican guards stood in front of a barrier near the presidential palace in Cairo, as protesters demonstrated against President Morsi on Sunday. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times)

In one of his first public addresses to the Egyptian people, President Mohammad Morsi claimed that "no institution, no authority; none can be above this will: The will of you; your will."  Morsi's words have proved prophetic: Tahrir Square has once again become lined with tents and angry Egyptians demanding the right to a free and democratic nation, but this time protesting the actions of Morsi's own Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The current Egyptian controversy was spawned by President Morsi’s decision to elevate himself above the jurisdiction of Egypt’s judiciary branch. The Egyptian President enacted a decree that made all his decisions immune from judicial review and reversal. In addition Morsi had prevented any judiciary body from being able to dissolve the Constituent Assembly which is responsible for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. Morsi originally promised to relinquish his power only after a new constitution has been approved by popular referendum and powers transferred to the newly elected parliament. President Morsi claimed he acted to prevent the old-guard courts from dissolving the Constituent Assembly, as they had dissolved an earlier assembly and the Parliament.

This presidential declaration caused outrage among many of Egypt’s judges and secular parties. Many judges went on strike and opposition leaders demanded that Morsi rescind his decree. Nobel Prize Laureate and former presidential candidate Muhammad ElBaradei declared that "The president and his Constituent Assembly are currently staging a coup against democracy. Regime legitimacy fast eroding.” Mostafa Hammouda, the representative of the Wafd party, believes that "Morsi’s declaration has left the nation more divided than before." "The fact that Morsi is a democratically-elected president does not mean that he acts like a pharaoh and puts himself above state institutions, especially the judiciary."
In a possible effort to mollify the growing protests, the constitutional assembly approved a final draft of the constitution, which is to be voted on by popular referendum on December 15. However, this action only served to further empower anti-Brotherhood demonstrations.  Protesters claim that the constitution, drafted by an Islamist-dominated committee, does not fairly represent the desires of all Egyptians. Senior Adviser for The Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad El-Haddad, on the other hand, believes “the constitution is extremely balanced – it walks a fine line between right and left, and the end result is satisfying for the majority.”

The growing instability reached a critical junction on Saturday night, when President Morsi rescinded his controversial presidential decree, but refused to postpone the December 15  constitutional referendum. Vice-President Mahmoud Makki commented “that the goal of immunizing the PCD [Presidential Constitutional Decree] was to give the people a chance to vote on the referendum. He added that the immunization has done its purpose and so has now expired.”  

Many point out that Morsi’s annulled decree is of little political significance. Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, echoed Makki's comments, saying that “the recommendations to rescind some powers were a 'play on words' since Morsi had already achieved the desired aim of finalizing the draft constitution and protecting it over the past weeks from a judicial challenge.
Yet, credit must be given to the power and pressure put forth by opposition protest.  The magnitude of these growing protests forced major Egyptian intuitions to express their growing concerns with the government. The Egyptian military stated “The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus. The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow.” Also significant was the response of Al-Azhar, the chief religious center of Islamic studies in Egypt.  The institute issued a statement that “the President of the Republic must freeze the recent constitutional declaration and engage immediately in a dialogue that includes all political forces, without exception and without preconditions.” Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, emphasis the importance of this declaration stating, “The honorable al-Azhar institution could never side with those seeking to abolish religion, but al-Azhar, like the military, believes that what is happening in Egypt is destroying the concept of the state, and undermining its institutions.”  
Yet, when assessing the current government’s upheavals, it is extremely important to remember that Egypt is a pious and religious society which overwhelmingly supported the establishment of an Islamic government. In the 2011 and 2012 elections the Islamic factions received over seventy percent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament and elected the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate as president. As such, many Islamists will argue that the current Parliament and Constituent Assembly do represent the overwhelming majority of the Egyptians, who want Islam as the foundation of their constitution. Many in the Islamist camp see the current protests as not being truly representative of the will of the Egyptian people. Tarek El-Sehari, a Salafist and deputy to the Shura Council Chairman, said he believes “everyone has the right to criticize the president, but nobody – especially those who failed to secure seats in the last parliamentary elections – has the right to attack public property or incite violence.”

Opposition forces remain defiant, demanding that the President cancel the December 15 referendum, and it is unclear how Egypt will emerge from this current round of protests. But what is clear is that Morsi's government is facing a new reality in Egypt. A new set of standards has been issued by the Egyptian people to judge their leaders. As Dayan Center Researcher Mira Tzoreff stated in Diwaniyya's most recent podcastit is no longer acceptable for a leader to secure his power under the guise of emergency laws without facing the consequences. The upcoming popular referendum should be a major indicator of current support for the government, but even with an approved constitution, Morsi will still be held to a new democratic standard at the demand of the Egyptian people. Only time will tell how the new democratic order defines itself, but currently it appears that the overbearing governments of Egypt’s past will be unable to thrive in the new Egyptian environment. 

Benjy Rogers

Diwaniyya Contributor