President Mohammed Mursi’s recent decisions to prop up presidential powers and shield the constituent assembly from legal challenges, among other controversial steps, have raised the question of where Egyptian politics is heading today.
At first glance these developments seem to hold the promise of vengeance for the revolution’s martyrs, whose families were granted an increase in their state pensions. Upon closer examination, however, these decisions are clearly aimed at appropriating revolutionary legitimacy and using it to strengthen the position of the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled presidency.
What was initially presented as a set of decrees aimed at responding to the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes that began on Monday, as well as widespread anger over the state’s ineptitude in bringing to justice those responsible for killing and injuring revolutionary protesters over the past year, ended up as a flagrant attempt to further centralize power and remove any checks on presidential authority.
The decrees effectively render the presidential decisions final and not subject to the review of judicial authorities, which may mark the return to Mubarak-style presidency, without even the legal cosmetics that the previous regime employed to justify its authoritarian ways.
The president also used the anger expressed by Mohamed Mahmoud protesters at the absence of credible trials for those suspected of killing and injuring revolutionary activists since the fall of Hosni Mubarak as an implicit justification for his decision to replace the prosecutor general. While the failure to bring to justice former and current security officials suspected of wrong-doing during and since the eighteen-day uprising can partly be blamed on the incompetence of prosecutors, the major hurdle to this process is essentially the absence of any meaningful reform inside military and civilian security agencies—something that Mursi’s decisions have failed to address.
In light of the fact that these agencies have been shielded from transformative institutional reforms even under Mursi’s leadership, it is anything but surprising that they continue to undermine ongoing investigations of current and former security officials. It is also no surprise that they persist in repeatedly employing deadly violence against peaceful protesters, as evidenced by a number of recent incidents. By overlooking the absence of legal and institutional reforms to rectify the conduct of the policing establishment and its relationship with society, Mursi has left the core of the problem at hand unresolved.
The timing of these decisions is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the replacement of the prosecutor general speaks to a fear that the Muslim Brotherhood has regarding the influx of complaints filed questioning the legal standing of the group. A prosecutor general who is not politically loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood makes both current and future challenges to the legality of the Brotherhood extremely threatening. Secondly, the consolidation of presidential authority underscores the fact that the Egyptian government, after reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund over the terms of a $4.8 billion loan, is preparing to go down a path of economic liberalization that will likely result in social unrest and a great deal of dissent that demands an imperial presidency with minimal accountability.
Thirdly, the decision that neither the Constituent Assembly nor the Shura Council can be legally dissolved comes at a time when the court is reviewing thorny legal challenges that could result in rendering these bodies unconstitutional. Fourthly, it is also likely that the president made these decisions after sensing that Washington would be reluctant to express serious concern over the nondemocratic nature of these decrees now that he has proven that, like Mubarak, he has something useful to offer on the Palestinian-Israeli track and, accordingly, should be granted some leeway in how he deals with domestic dissent.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that what is most striking about the declaration is not what it contained, but rather what was omitted. In light of police brutality against protesters, widespread anger over the Assiut crash that resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent children, and mass withdrawals of non-Islamist figures from the Constituent Assembly due to serious disagreements over the draft constitution, several people expected that the president would announce something quite different.
They expected the replacement of the Hesham Qandil Cabinet, a plan to reform the Ministry of Interior and the policing establishment, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the formation of a more credible and representative constitution drafting body. Instead, the president sent the message that his decisions are supreme, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Constituent Assembly cannot be dissolved, and that his government and the country’s repressive security agencies inherited from the Mubarak era are untouchable.
Mursi has clearly taken sides, and it is not the side of the revolution.
Hesham Sallam is co-editor of Jadaliyya and a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown University. This article first appeared in Egypt independent on Nov. 23, 2012