Last week, funeral precessions were held for two young Egyptians who were killed against the backdrop of intense political polarization that is currently gripping Egypt. One was Gaber Salah, nicknamed Gika who had participated in the demonstrations near the Ministry of Interior to mark the first anniversary of the “Mohamed Mahmoud Street events” in which 58 young civilians died as a result of the brutality of security forces that were allied with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) at the time. The 18-year-old Gika had gone with his friends and companions to the scene of those events to commemorate the dead, to demand redress and to demand that the Ministry of Interior be purged of the remnants of the corrupt Mubarak regime. The young protesters received the same treatment as their colleagues had last year and Gika was killed by a Ministry of Interior bullet. His funeral procession proceeded from the same place in which Gika had marched in the funeral procession of his friend Osama Ahmed at the same time last year. The second youth, indeed child because he was only 15 years old, was Islam Masoud who was killed in Damanhour in skirmishes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and some political forces that had taken to the streets to protest against the recent constitutional declaration issued by President Mohamed Mursi.
It probably goes without staying that Mursi is the first person responsible, politically and in practical terms, for the death of these two young people (just as he is politically responsible for the death of more than 50 children when a train crashed into a school bus in Assiut two weeks ago). It may not seem important that Gika and Islam were just two young dreamers like many other young people of our youthful revolution, but it is. It is because, more importantly, in one way or another, they were both part of the Mursi tribe. During the presidential elections, Gika had been one of Mursi’s most ardent supporters against Ahmed Shafik. As his father mentioned in an interview last week, Gika went from door to door in his neighborhood canvassing support for Mursi against Shafik. Islam, according to press reports, was straight from Mursi’s tight knit Muslim Brotherhood family.
The deaths of Gika and Islam sum up the current political crisis in Egypt. They tell us more than all the politicians and inhabitants of satellite TV do together. They tell us that Mursi has failed to express the hopes and aspirations of the revolution that had toppled the Mubarak regime and eventually brought Mursi to power. The dreams of Islam, Gika and so many other revolutionary youth for freedom make it all the more tragic that Mursi issued, without the slightest compunction, an authoritarian constitutional declaration and justified this beneath the rubric “protecting the gains of the revolution”. Nothing has been done to cleanse and reform the Ministry of Interior and to punish those responsible for the death of the revolutionary youth. No serious attempt has been made to reach a consensus with other political forces in spite of the pledge that Mursi had issued in the “Fairmont declaration” before the second round of the presidential elections.
Mursi has also failed to produce any progress in the process of democratic transformation, some of the necessary steps towards which I discussed in this column three weeks ago. As a consequence, tensions have steadily built up to an explosive level that he touched off with his constitutional declaration. To aggravate matters, Mursi simply could not distance himself from his Muslim Brotherhood family and become a president for all Egyptians.
It is possible to read Mursi’s constitutional declaration from several angles. However, the chief feature of this edict, with which he granted himself, his decisions and his Muslim Brotherhood total immunity, is that it has inaugurated what we can now indisputably term the era of the Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt.
Seemingly overnight, Mursi shed that political “timidity” — or what some have described as the “dissemblance” — he had assumed for three months and pounced in a flagrant grab for total and exclusive power. After becoming president, he moved to enhance his image through the combination of a populist rhetoric and a comportment that was modest in form and heavily politicised in substance. The fusion won him quite a degree of popularity, especially in light of the ridiculous jibes against him from the remnants of the old regime and the naivety and fragmentation among the ranks of his opponents. He also has a certain rhetorical flare, especially when speaking on foreign policy issues, which helped him divert attention from the failures of his government at home.
However, after his coup against SCAF which landed him squarely in the leader’s seat, Mursi followed in the footsteps of his predecessors from Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Mubarak, wielding the powers he had at his disposal to sideline the opposition. Some argue that Mursi has a right to avail himself of the constitutional declaration as a legal instrument, if not by virtue of the law then by virtue of developments in Egypt under military rule that effectively paved the way to Mursi’s presidency and power. Many also had faith in Mursi and believed that he would be the “founding president” of a truly democratic state that respected the principle of the separation of powers and that provided effective checks on the executive and instruments to ensure its accountability. Unfortunately, they were deceived. Mursi used his virtually absolute powers under one constitutional declaration to make his powers even greater in the next.
Otherwise put, the “Mursi declaration” carries the seeds of another dictatorship that the Muslim Brotherhood is launching in the name of the revolution and in a populist guise. Some might think that this declaration was a political misstep or an error in judgement. That might be true, to an extent. However, it still has important implications with regard to how the president thinks and his approach to handling political crises.
On the surface it may appear that his constitutional declaration is intended to “protect the revolution” from the “remnants” of an old and corrupt regime who are plotting to undermine him. Certainly, the article on reopening the trials of those responsible for the deaths of protesters during and after the revolution and the article that effectively dismissed the prosecutor-general give that impression. However, the real substance of the declaration is that Mursi is all-powerful and can do whatever he likes whenever he likes. It is little wonder, therefore, that Mursi would append to this what he called the “law to protect the gains of the revolution.” Not much attention has been given to this piece of deception which is alarmingly similar to precisely the types of similar sounding ambiguously worded laws that Nasser introduced following the 1952 coup in order to eliminate his rivals and adversaries and to “nationalize” the revolution by placing its reins firmly and exclusively in his hands and those of his fellow officers.
The Mursi declaration is also an explicit admission that the president is not the impartial referee between rival political teams and powers that so many people had hoped to see but rather an openly biased player for one team, his Muslim Brotherhood family. The source of the current crisis is what has been happening in the Constituent Assembly charged with writing Egypt’s new constitution. The assembly has been plagued by discord and withdrawals especially since the publication of the first draft of the constitution, and the main purpose of Mursi’s declaration was to safeguard this assembly that is dominated by his fellow Muslim Brothers and Salafis from possible dissolution by order of the Supreme Constitutional Court. We had hoped that the president would have had sufficient wisdom and political acumen to reach out to his political adversaries instead of just catering to his supporters. While it is true that some adversaries seek only to obstruct him, most have legitimate concerns and demands. Sadly, he found it more expedient to write these off and them too with a stroke of his pen.
The Mursi declaration was also a way to “test the pulse” of possible opposition to his decrees in the future. It indicated that he was in confrontationist mode and that
he decided to gird himself with new rules in order to take on the opposition forces. Mursi might believe that his electoral legitimacy gave him a “blank cheque” to set the course of democratic transformation in Egypt on the road of his or the MB’s choosing; however, his electoral and political legitimacy rests on two factors. The first is his commitment to his electoral programme (which many maintain was a huge mirage that took the name of the Nahda [Renaissance] project). The second is his ability to reach a national consensus over how to realise the aims of the revolution. He has just decimated this legitimacy with his constitutional declaration.
Finally, the Mursi declaration not only depleted the last reserves of trust between the Muslim Brotherhood and all other political forces, regardless of how fragmented and weak they are, it also put paid to any possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood can be a force that propels towards democracy in Egypt. Egypt will emerge from the current crisis sooner or later. Perhaps we might think the easiest way out is to keep the Constituent Assembly in tact and pass the constitution, in exchange for the abrogation of the “immunity of the presidential will”. However, the fact is that the damage has already occurred with that presidential constitutional declaration which has created grave doubts in the extent to which the president and his group subscribe to democratic values. The president had chosen to flex his political muscle in order to twist the arms of opposition forces and anyone who disagreed rather than to engage them in meaningful talks in order to lead the country out of crisis.
One could not help but to note that the president issued his constitutional declaration without having discussed it with his team of advisors, which led several of them to tender their resignations. Perhaps even worse are rumours that some presidential advisors from the Muslim Brotherhood have actively isolated the president from the rest of his advisors and aides. What this signifies, if true, is that Mursi no longer controls his own decision-making powers.
The sad result of the constitutional declaration was that it plunged Egypt into a dark tunnel of escalating tension and verbal and physical violence that could threaten domestic peace. Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood have driven a sharp wedge into society and stoked what now might become a relentless conflict between the executive and judicial branches of society. They might think that the constitutional declaration was a political victory, but the real loser from this authoritarian diktat is Egypt, the Egyptian people and our especially new generation, the generation of the martyrs Gika and Islam.
(Khalil el-Anani is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University)