Egypt is in revolution mode once again. President Muhammad Mursi’s controversial Constitutional Decree, announced last week, has polarized the nation and raised fears of a nationwide outbreak of violent protests and bloody confrontations between supporters and detractors. Already deaths and injuries have been reported in the past few days.
The surprise decree, which gave the president sweeping new powers, has united liberal and leftist forces under a National Salvation Front (NSF) and political figures like Mohammad ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi have called on President Mursi to rescind his declaration immediately before they accept invitations for dialogue. On the other hand, Muslim Brotherhood followers have rallied in support of the president and his decisions. They want him to purge the judicial body and even the media from remnants of the old regime. Last Friday they called on him to disband the country’s Constitutional Court, the highest in the land.
His most vociferous opponents have described him as a dictator with unlimited powers. The president has said that his move is a temporary one aimed at safeguarding the transitional period and protecting democratically elected bodies. He has given his decisions immunity from judicial reviews and prevented courts from disbanding the Upper House (Shoura) or the Constitutional Assembly entrusted with drafting a new constitution for Egypt.
Whether Mursi’s motives were genuine or not, the move has renewed suspicions of the intentions of the Islamist president and the group that he is affiliated with. The power grab gives the president absolute control over the three branches of government in the absence of an elected Parliament and an independent judiciary. Under a series of constitutional declarations, enacted after the toppling of President Mubarak two years ago by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the president can issue temporary laws until a new Parliament is elected. But now he has expanded his authority to appoint the country’s public prosecutor and prevent courts from challenging his decrees.
His supporters say the president had to act to prevent a “corrupt” judiciary from derailing the Jan. 25 revolution. President Mursi told followers that conspirators were working in the dark to deny justice to martyrs and to prevent the Constitutional Assembly from completing its work.
It is possible that President Mursi’s move underlined his political naiveté and bad counseling by his advisers. He may have underestimated the reaction by his opponents. Now he faces the wrath of most civil organizations, political parties, the press syndicate and the country’s judges. It is a political crisis of his own making and it comes few days after he was praised for playing a major role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to end eight days of brutal assault on Gaza.
His controversial decree has driven thousands to Al Tahrir Square in protest. He has united the opposition and the country is clearly divided between Islamist forces and those against them. Even worse the protests have crippled the country’s economy and caused billions of dollars in losses at the stock market. The crisis also threatens the fate of a vital IMF loan to Egypt.
What is worse is that Mursi’s blunder has raised fresh concern about the true designs of the Muslim Brotherhood. Already non Islamist members of the predominantly Islamist Constitutional Assembly have walked out. A Christian adviser to the president has resigned, along with five others. The Judges’ Club has called on courts to go on strike. With both sides calling for million-man demonstrations all over the country tension will certainly heighten. There are fears of bloody confrontations as angry youth try to march toward key government buildings. Some offices of the Freedom and Justice Party have already been torched.
Unless the president finds a way to suspend or rescind his decree, the political crisis in Egypt will widen. The damage to the outcome of the Constitutional Assembly may have already happened. This will prolong the transitional phase and will certainly raise questions about Egypt’s stability and return to normalcy.
Regardless of his motives, President Mursi has done more bad than good by underestimating reactions to his latest decree. He was praised when he carried out a bloodless coup against the ruling military council last summer and retrieved his full executive powers. But this time it is different.
Egyptians have become sensitive to the growing influence of the Islamists and their increasing role within the Constitutional Assembly. Opponents are afraid that the president and his followers will turn Egypt into an Islamic state forgoing civil and secular institutions. Critics of the latest decree say special courts will threaten freedom of the media and will diminish personal freedoms.
Even if the president finds a way to retrace his steps it is clear that he has opened a Pandora ’s Box of problems and challenges. The newly formed NSF will demand more concessions and guarantees from the president.
Mursi’s gambit has attracted attention in other Arab countries where the rise of the Islamists has created concern over the future of the civil state. How this latest crisis will evolve will have a direct effect on political developments in these countries.
(The writer is a columnist at the Jordan Times, where this article was published on Nov. 28, 2012)