The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Monopolizing Power in Egypt

Michael Hanna is completely right in this Foreign Policy piece:

As a matter of democratic principle, the concentration of political power represented by President Morsi's constitutional decree is wholly objectionable. These actions are even more objectionable coming as they do in the midst of a transition that will define the parameters and fundamentals of a new political and constitutional order. As a result of the self-granted authority to appoint a new constituent assembly if the current body fails to produce a constitutional draft for ratification, President Morsi will have vast coercive authority to influence the drafting of the constitution. In light of the decisive role of his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues and other Islamist allies on the assembly, the work of the current assembly could be intentionally undermined in the hopes of a more compliant body selected by the president. While political constraints might curtail the practicability of this threat, it nonetheless might influence the contours of discourse and debate within the assembly.

Furthermore, the domineering approach of the Muslim Brotherhood to the transitional period and their exercise of political power should give pause to those beguiled by assurances of inclusion and broad-based political consensus. The track record of the Brothers during this period is characterized by promises broken and silence in the face of SCAF abuses, such as military trials for civilians and the application of the emergency law for most of the SCAF's tenure. The Brothers, in tandem with the SCAF, also sought to tarnish those intent on continuing the protest movement through mass mobilization and public actions. Their tenure in parliament was marked by unilateralism, lack of consultation, and consistent efforts to dominate all facets of the political process. While giving rhetorical credence to notions of inclusivity and consensus, their attempts to dictate the constitutional-drafting process belied any such assurances. With institutional aggrandizement as their lodestar, the Brothers managed to alienate nearly the entire Egyptian political class. With this recent history in mind, it is unreasonable to accord them unlimited faith and trust -- faith and trust that would be misplaced if accorded to the most enlightened of philosopher kings.

And he even offers some options:

As such, a constitutional decree could embed checks and balances on executive authority. This is complicated by the absence of a parliament after it was dissolved by the SCAF in accordance with a judgment by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), but there are imaginative alternatives if there is a will and interest in political balance. One such approach would be to vest temporary legislative authority in the currently-functioning constituent assembly. Another alternative would be to construct a broad-based council composed of diverse representatives of the political class whose ratification of legislation would be necessary for promulgation. The president could also issue a transitional decree enshrining individual rights to blunt concerns that this government will now consolidate power by silencing critics and muzzling expression. None of these options are ideal, but they are a qualitative improvement over dictatorial power.

I made a similar argument in my National column yesterday:

It might be argued that in the absence of a parliament, Mr Morsi had no choice but to assume these responsibilities - someone had to other than the military. But, considering the legal and constitutional limbo he is operating in, it might have been wiser to ensure power is shared or at least to engage other political forces.

The appointment of the new vice president, Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge said to have Brotherhood sympathies who was a leader of the fight for judicial independence under Mubarak, reinforced the perception that Mr Morsi is not reaching out. Christians, women and personalities of diverse political backgrounds have not been promoted despite Mr Morsi's pledge to be a uniter.

In Mr Morsi's defence, he is not alone in bearing responsibility for this. Over the past month and a half, many personalities - from young revolutionaries to secular politicians - turned down offers from the Morsi administration, preferring to remain in opposition.

The calculus then may have been that, as long as Mr Morsi and Scaf were at loggerheads, it was better to be on the outside - or even simply that participating in an administration that lacked formal power was pointless. Well, the situation has changed. Being in government in today's Egypt is an ungrateful proposition, but one cannot simultaneously complain of a Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and reject offers of power-sharing without even testing if they are genuine.

On Sunday, Mr Morsi should have called for a national conference to hammer out a compromise on the constituent assembly. He can still do so, and perhaps even delegate legislative power to that assembly or give it some kind of veto over new legislation.

I think it's very important to stress that there is no reason to expect magnanimity from the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. They appear to have a clear idea of what they want and how to implement it. Their opponents should also have a clear idea of what they want, be willing to get their hands dirty and take up opportunities to have a seat at the table. The various parties should now make their demands, and the conditions of their participation clear — personally, I think they need to demand that Morsi amend his recent changes to the constitution by withdrawing his power to appoint a constituent assembly and delegate legislative power to a new assembly. They better articulate that demand clearly and show a strong consensus.