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Morsi's rule: A chip off the old Mubarak block?

While many Egyptian activists are still worried about the Muslim Brotherhood factor in domestic politics, more are concerned that the new president may uphold the autocratic ways of his predecessor

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 25 Aug 2012
Protest
During the Anti-Brotherhood protests by the presidential palace, 24 August (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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"This is much worse than anything I have seen during the years of (ousted president Hosni) Mubarak. This is really too much," complained an elderly Heliopolis resident who was stuck in her car early Friday afternoon, less than 200 metres from the presidential palace in Heliopolis.

For over 20 minutes, this lady was talking with other drivers who were also stuck as they tried to drive their cars backwards to evade an intersection zoned off by riot police in anticipation of scores of demonstrators who had decided to join the 24 August call for demonstrations against the rule of President Mohamed Morsi.

Protestors insist that Morsi's affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood and his selection of largely Islamist aides promises to undermine the "civil nature" of Egypt.

The call for demonstrations 24 August did not garner much support from established political groups and activists who, including some liberal figures, insisted that Morsi is a legitimately elected president and that the democratic choice of people had to be respected.

"We have to make sure that the civil nature of Egypt is not undermined, but we also have to show respect for the choice that Egyptian voters made through the ballot box. Morsi is a freely and legitimately elected president," said Amr Hamzawi, a prominent liberal.

Hamzawi is nonethless concerned about Morsi's presidency. Indeed, earlier this month this former MP did not mince his words when telling Morsi face to face, during a gathering the president had called, about his fears over the values of equal citizenship, the legitimate rights of women and Copts in society, and about the need to expand and not reduce the scope of freedoms.

"I specifically said that we need a clear statement from the president about support for public and personal freedoms, especially those related to freedom of expression," Hamzawi told Ahram Online.

The meeting that Morsi held at the presidential palace, which is becoming the scene of endless protests with or against the new head of state, came at a time when journalists and TV anchors, whose professionalism is subject to question by some, were being hauled before courts on charges of insulting the president.

"The need to defend liberties is not conditional; you do not defend the liberties of those you agree with. You defend the principle (of free expression) and this was what I said in defence against some who were passing judgments on the professionalism of the journalists in question," Hamzawi said.

The journalists in question launched an attack against Morsi for the same reason former MP Mohamed Abou-Hamed chose to call for demonstrations 24 August: Morsi is Islamicising the state.

Mohamed Ossman of the "Strong Egypt Party" — a metamorphosis of the Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh presidential campaign — joined the drive to secure presidential support for freedoms and equal citizenship.

Speaking to Morsi during the same meeting, which came after the 12 August presidential decree forcing into retirement the heads of the military, a move that sparked deep fears among Copts of over a possible "attack of Islamicisation," Ossman called on the president "to act and not just speak to reassure Copts."

Ossman also called on Morsi to act to reassure journalists about the freedom of the press, ahead of Morsi's 23 August decree to suspend the practice of imprisoning journalists, including those accused of insulting the president. 

But for Ossman, as for Hamzawi, the need to defend the civil nature of the state is not the only cause for political activism today. An equal cause for both politicians is to forestall the emergence in Egypt of a new autocracy, whether it is intentional or not.

It is worrying to both politicians that the president decided on the same day when he forced into retirement Egypt's top generals to take hold of all legislative authorities. Moreover, Morsi granted himself the right to compose a new constitution-drafting committee, should the current one fail to promptly produce an agreeable text.

More worrying still is the fact that despite clear protests against Morsi controlling so many branches of the state, and no matter what promises the president has been making not to abuse these powers, Morsi is not willing to consider any proposal to pass legislative powers to the Shura Council — the lower house of parliament — after representation for non-Islamists in the body, or the representative assembly in charge of drafting a new constitution.

For lawyer and activist Ahmed Heshmat, this is "precisely the fear that Morsi turns into a dictator."

Nonetheless, Heshmat does not see an attempt on the part of the president to Islamicise the state, despite his "continued need for the support of the Muslim Brotherhood constituency and machinery."

"When Morsi issued his decrees (of 12 August) he could have reassembled the dissolved parliament which has a considerable majority for the Muslim Brotherhood. This would have been perfectly legal. But he chose not to because he was smart enough to avoid acting to serve the interests of the group," Heshmat said.

During his second week in office, Morsi ordered a reinstating of the dissolved People's Assembly, disbanded before Morsi's victory on a ruling by the High Constitutional Court. Days after his move to revive the body, the president bowed to pressure and backed down on his effort to reinstate the body.

"Things are still unclear, but if we were to judge by what we see now, it is more an autocracy than a theocracy that we should worry about," Heshmat suggested.

Avoiding either, or each, he suggested depends on "a unified and serious opposition."

Within political quarters recently there has been much talk about a possible "merger of the opposition," including Mohamed ElBaradei, the renowned liberal figure, and Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third in the first round of the presidential race.

In the same political quarters there is talk about an expansion of the Islamist-leaning constituency of Aboul-Fotouh, to formulate a centre block.

"If we have any of these two blocs or maybe both, then we have a strong and solid opposition that would keep the president's performance and choices in check. This is what we need; not just the sporadic demonstrations here and there that lack a clear agenda or coherent support," Heshmat suggested.

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