A couple of weeks ago, when writing an essay on the trajectories of the Arab revolts for a book chapter to appear in 2013, I wrote the following:
“ [In Egypt] The level of broader education and civil society organization
is very weak, as the Mubarak regime suppressed civil society organization, the
main exception being the Muslim Brotherhood which operated semi-underground and
has now come to power. Thus it is unclear whether the secular elite,
concentrated in the cities, will have the strength to check the power of a Morsi
government whose Muslim Brotherhood has organizational centers throughout the
country. The struggle over the constitution, which is still ongoing, may not
produce a document that ensures the pluralism and checks on state authority.
Both Egypt’s and Tunisia’s new regimes have been promised technical support by
Europe and the U.S. and financial support from the Gulf nations. So they have
the external support to overcome short-term economic and organizational
difficulties. Nonetheless, the direction in which Egypt is headed seems to
promise either an overbearing semi-authoritarian rule under a Morsi government
backed by the Muslim Brotherhood as the most significant element in civil
society, and hence with no effective opposition or checks on its power, or a
fragmenting struggle between the Brotherhood and secular forces backed by the
military seeking to undermine Morsi’s rule.”
Things unfolded much faster than expected, as we are already seeing the results of a Morsi regime that is unchecked in its formal powers.
It is understandable that Morsi felt it necessary to intervene to assure that the courts did not dissolve the constituent assembly, as that would have further delayed the production of a new constitution, and Egypt has already been long without a charter for democratic governance.
Yet Morsi’s over-reaching initial decree, giving himself dictatorial powers and nullifying the existing modest check that the courts had over government actions, has surely undermined the process he meant to save. A large number of members of the constituent assembly walked out in protest, and now will have to be lured back. But the Islamists in the assembly, no doubt reinforced in their concerns by the recent conflict in Gaza and the criticism of their leader Morsi, are likely to resist incentives to the secular and liberal members. The latter, meanwhile, will want stronger protections in the new constitution against executive power grabs of the kind that Morsi just enacted.
Morsi has now promised to scale back his initial power grab, agreeing to limits on its scope and timing. But what mechanism is there to enforce that promise? If the constituent assembly bogs down in recrimination and fails, will Morsi enact a new constitution on his own? Will he appoint a new assembly or appoint new members to the existing one? Will he call for new elections (the most democratic alternative?)
The problem in Egyptian politics is that no one knows the answer to these questions. What we do know is that Morsi is willing to exercise as much personal power has he thinks necessary to resolve political conflicts, and more importantly, that there is no institution in Egypt’s government that can prevent him from doing so. Morsi has in this instance backed off a bit, in the face of popular and elite protests. But there is no guarantee that he will do so in the future, and indeed the wide support of the Brotherhood and its supporters for his actions argue that, if necessary, Morsi can not only seize power but defend such action.
Again we see the difficulty of establishing stable democracy in the face of factional conflicts (here between the Brotherhood and its Salafi and secular opponents). One has to hope that Morsi uses whatever prestige he gained from his role in the Gaza cease-fire and whatever space he has bought with his recent retreat to use his diplomatic and leadership skills at home to start to broker agreements among his supporters and opponents, especially in the constituent assembly. The sooner Egypt gains a new constitution with BOTH explicit constraints on executive power AND wide agreement among elites to abide by those rules, the better. The longer this process takes, the less likely Egypt is to gain a stable but limited government.