On the 25th of January 2011, the people of Egypt began to descend to the streets. Their revolution had two pillars, one negative, one affirmative: ‘al-sha’ab’ yurid isqat al-nidham’ (the people want the downfall of the regime) and ‘‘aysh, hurriyyah, ‘adalah ijtima’iyyah’ (bread (indicating economic justice), freedom and social justice). 18 months later, a newly elected president attempted to dismiss the prosecutor-general, who had been appointed by the former regime. There is no other way to describe the outcome except as an embarrassing defeat – a defeat that even pro-revolutionary forces were pleased about. Why? How? And what does this say about the state of play in Egyptian politics, the rule of law, and revolutionary governance?
Over the 18 months following the 25th of January, a good deal took place. The head of the regime, Mr Hosni Mubarak, was forced to resign by the military establishment, from which he had emerged. Under the aegis of a junta, presided over by a field marshal, there were relatively free elections for parliament and the presidency. Not too long after the newly elected president took office, the junta opted to depart from the governing arena, and indicated to the presidency that it would return to the status quo prior to the revolution. That status quo would mean the end of the governing junta (which had hitherto essentially shared the function of the presidency with the elected president), and it’s return to the privileged, quasi-state-within-a-state position it had previously held. At least in terms of affairs not related to foreign policy, defence and the military’s budget, the elected president would have free rein to engage with state institutions to institute and implement his platform.
It is important to recall briefly at this juncture precisely what sort of victory the newly elected president had. The first round of the presidential elections saw a turn-out of 43% of the electorate – not particularly high. Mr Mohamed Morsi, the nominee of the Muslim Brotherhood, an integral part of Egypt’s political fabric, came in first with about 25% of the vote – in other words, about 75% of the voting electorate (not to mention those who did not vote) chose to vote for other candidates. Mr Morsi then beat Mr Ahmad Shafiq, Mr Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, in the second round, acquiring 52% of the vote. The turn out was slightly better in the second round, but more than half of the electorate chose not to vote. It is crucial to remember this – Mr Morsi won the election, but he cannot claim to represent even a majority of Egyptians, let alone the overwhelming majority.
Now, this is not particularly unusual in most elections, around the world. Many countries experience low turn out rates in terms of elections, and where there is a presidential system combined with a ‘winner takes all’ approach, invariably the winner does not possess a massive democratic mandate. Nevertheless, he or she is president, and is accorded the role without any further discussion. There are two major differences, however, within Egypt in 2012, after the January 25th revolution. The first is that Mr Morsi came to power at a time when there was no standing parliament – in other words, executive and legislative authority existed as one within the presidential office. The normal checks and balances on Mr Morsi did not exist, and continue to be absent (except, as previously implied, in the domains of defence and foreign policies, where the supreme council of the armed force is still overwhelming influential).
There is one more unique aspect to this period of Egyptian history: and that is, indeed, the revolution. The revolution was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people: it was, as the perhaps tired, but nevertheless accurate, cliché goes, ‘a people’s revolution’. Gallup polling figures, taken multiple times during 2011, show that more than 8 out of 10 Egyptians supported the uprising in January 2011. It was that wide acceptance of, and support for, the revolution that lays down the moral and ethical justification to enact change to fulfil the revolution’s demands. However, revolutionary change, when based on a revolution that was this widespread, demands that the fulfilment of the revolution’s demands also be enacted through an authority that has similar levels of widespread support. Otherwise, that authority is simply acting on the basis of normal politics – not revolutionary politics. The rules of the game are different, depending on what sort of politics one is engaging in.
This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter when understanding the level of play within Egypt at present. If this is, indeed, a revolutionary political period, then special, extraordinary measures can indeed be taken that bypass the normal system. Such measures would be in keeping with the moral and ethical authority leant to the ruling authority – for example, the forced resignation of Mr Mubarak by the armed forces, who undoubtedly had overwhelming support for their action when they pushed this through. Nevertheless, a revolution that is based on mass, popular support, such as the January 25th revolution, demands that any authority that seeks to implement revolutionary changes (i.e., bypassing normal procedures), has to likewise have overwhelming support.
If, however, the authority does not have such overwhelming support, it cannot be described as being endowed with revolutionary authority to go beyond established normal procedures enshrined in existing law. Rather, it is still the legitimate authority (of course): but it can only then engage through legally legitimate means. Not revolutionary, supra-legal means.
Herein lies the rump. When Mr Morsi attempted, unsuccessfully, to dismiss the prosecutor general, many defended him as trying to achieve a demand of the revolution. However, as president of the republic, he has no authority to dismiss (or ‘persuade him to resign’) the prosecutor-general. His move was correctly perceived as the presidency attempting to enforce his own vision upon the judiciary, displacing the former regime’s, through extra-legal measures. He failed, as the judiciary responded almost in a united fashion, and other political forces did not stand by Mr Morsi in trying to force the prosecutor general to stand down.
Mr Morsi governs Egypt as a legitimate president, curtailed by the law and the existing system. Moreover, he suffers from the absence of a parliamentary check upon him, which is actually a handicap upon him, as makes him vulnerable to the accusation of heavy-handed authoritarianism, whether he is guilty of it or not. Finally, he emanates from a movement that is suspected by different portions of Egyptian society of not being entirely committed to the notion that Egyptians all share the same civil liberties in Egypt.
He does not, therefore, govern Egypt as a revolutionary president – one that might go above and beyond established procedures to institute a truly non-corrupt and independent judiciary in a short time, for example. His presidency was not endowed with that authority. Rather, it is ‘political business as usual’.
With all of this considered, Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood at large have a choice, as the largest power brokers in Egypt’s political landscape. Either the revolution continues, or it does not. Many believe that it ended on the 11th of February, when Mr Mubarak was forced to step down. Others believe it ended when Mr Morsi took office. Others still believe it ended at other points: but they all believe it ended. If it did end, then revolutionary political governance is no longer applicable, and Mr Morsi has to go through established systems, without circumventing them as he tried to do with the prosecutor general.
If the revolution, however, continues, then Mr Morsi has a serious task ahead of him. The 25th of January revolution was a people’s revolution – and going outside of established norms in order to achieve revolutionary demands would require Mr Morsi to act in concert and in conjunction with other political forces, in order to speak on behalf of the overwhelming majority of Egyptian citizens. In other words, he would have to engage in a government of national consensus, and draw in, genuinely, different parts of the opposition that supported the revolution.
If Mr Morsi does so, then that temporary conglomerate of political forces might be able to enact thoroughly revolutionary changes for the betterment of Egypt as a whole. Unfortunately, it does not appear as though that is particularly likely – and as such, Egypt is likely to see more of ‘politics as usual’. As a matter of fact, judging by the last few months and the MB’s majoritarian impulses (for example in forming the constitutional assembly), it will probably not simply be ‘politics as usual’. It’s probably going to be more partisan, more majoritarian, and more based on narrow self-interest than a normal political system.
Nevertheless, one cannot escape a note of optimism. For in the midst of this divisive period, the level of discourse on Egypt and it’s future has never been more dynamic and engaging. Yes, much time is wasted on paltry issues pertaining to identity – but the freedom to engage and debate is far greater than it has been in recent memory.
Indeed, the refusal of the prosecutor-general and the judiciary to back down in the face the presidency, something that would never have happened under Mr Mubarak, should not be seen by Mr Morsi as a disappointing defeat. Rather, it should be a note of encouragement, and a confirmation that actually, there was a revolution in Egypt.
For many Egyptians, that revolution continues. The real question for Mr Morsi, perhaps, is: will he rejoin that revolution?
Dr H.A. Hellyer, based in Cairo, is nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. @hahellyer www.hahellyer.com