Analysis: Egypt: battle lines are drawn

Egyptian President Morsi completed his takeover of the country with his “constitutional declaration.”

MOHAMED MORSI, center, prays at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
MOHAMED MORSI, center, prays at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the new “constitutional declaration” issued on November 22, President Mohamed Morsi completed his takeover of Egypt. He now holds all executive, legislative and judicial powers; furthermore he denies anyone the right to cancel the laws and decrees he issued since he took office on June 30.
Former Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, who ruled with an iron hand, never went that far. To all intents and purposes Morsi has become a dictator whose prerogatives are only rivaled by those of the president of North Korea. This has been achieved through what is nothing less than a putsch against the constitutional legitimacy of the country. It is so patently illegal that a leader attempting it anywhere else would be thrown out of office, but Morsi was nothing but thorough.
According to the declaration “the president may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”
This is going even further than the infamous emergency laws of Mubarak which were repelled only a scant few months ago. Obviously the president feels that he has nothing to fear from the police, the security apparatus, or the army.
What we are seeing is the end of the first phase of the revolution which included the toppling of Mubarak, the emergence of radical Islam as the dominant force in the country and the relentless drive of the Muslim Brotherhood to take control of all power bases.
Now that they have achieved their aim, Egypt is entering into the second phase: a fight to the last between religious extremism and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has so far managed to hoodwink the people of Egypt. They have proceeded one step at a time. First they proclaimed that they would only present candidates for one third of the seats of the parliament – then they fought for every single one, gaining 47 percent of the seats. Then they said they would not field a candidate for the presidency – but they did, and put their formidable social network behind him.
Morsi was elected; he promised to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice presidents, but promptly forgot about it. He immediately got to work, getting rid of the army old guard and appointing new officers in their stead. He then turned to the judiciary, long known for its strength and independence. The Supreme Constitutional Court had ordered the parliament dissolved because its election had been rife with irregularities.
Morsi decided to convene it nevertheless – but had to back down after a stern warning from the court. A few weeks later he fired the attorney general – who refused to stand down and told him he did not have the power to oust him, the judiciary being independent of the executive.
Morsi had to back down again. Not for long. With the constitutional declaration he gave himself as we have seen executive, legislative and judicial powers – thus becoming powerful as pharaoh, as the Egyptians were prompt to point out.
But then something happened. The Egyptians were no longer ready to bow to a dictator. They had lost their fear and were now ready to take to the streets to fight for their freedom, though they knew that there would be fighting, there would be wounded and that people would die.
There was an immediate outcry after the publication of the decree.
This was not completely unexpected; the Brotherhood had called on their members to flock to Tahrir square and voice their support for the leader.
Incidentally, this demonstrates that the Muslim Brotherhood are in charge and that the president follow their directives. In any case, they had not anticipated the strength of the opposition to the declaration.
Now Morsi is trying to calm things down, explaining that his only wish is to preserve the revolution and that the declaration is only temporary; it will be rescinded as soon as a new constitution is approved and new elections held.
This time, people are not so ready to believe him. Opposition to Morsi and to the Brotherhood is growing.
There are street demonstrations; the headquarters of the Brotherhood have been attacked throughout the country. So far two people have died and hundreds have been wounded.
Prestigious figures such as Mohamed El-Baradei and Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Ayman Nour all proclaimed that they would be satisfied with nothing less but the cancellation of the constitutional declaration. Once again, a mass demonstration is due to be held today Tuesday, while the Muslim Brotherhood is getting ready for a counter demonstration. A ploy only seen in dictatorial countries.
What next? Morsi may try to reach a compromise by backing down on some points to appease the powerful opposition. It is clear to all that this would be a temporary measure.
Morsi will try again. The opposition is unlikely to give in. Are we seeing the beginning of a new revolution, one that might this time put Egypt on the road to democracy? Will Morsi stand firm whatever the human cost? It will be very interesting to see US President Barack Obama’s attitude.
After all, only last week he praised Morsi for his role in brokering the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Will he now throw his weight behind the opposition? Once again, one can only hope...
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.