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Morsi's moment of truth

The time has arrived for President Morsi and his political party to show that they aim to create a participatory democracy, rather than an authoritarian state

Taher Helmy , Saturday 22 Dec 2012
Views: 2463
Views: 2463

As someone who has long advocated democracy in Egypt, when Mr Morsi took office, I took the position that Egyptians should support their first democratically-elected government and pursue the democratic process in every way.

The main point was to move forward with socially equitable development, and rebuild a fast-deteriorating economy. I warned that the ability to do so would depend on the new government’s actions. As the president consolidated his authorities following his election, he assumed unprecedented power which, I stressed, meant greater responsibility.

Give the new government the benefit of the doubt, I wrote, let us see how it exercises these vast powers and how, as it had promised, it would focus on building the nation.

The moment of truth has now arrived for President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), their supporters and all Egyptians. The new government has revealed its intent to create not a participatory democracy but another authoritarian state.

This breach of trust and the resultant political turmoil come as grave disappointments to Egyptians. Many of those who voted for Mr Morsi, who was elected by a very narrow majority, are now protesting against him, even torching FJP headquarters.

Although he had assured the public he is "president of all Egyptians," Mr Morsi’s recent actions prove otherwise. His 22 November constitutional declaration, that usurped all rights from the judiciary, made him immune to court challenges; all court cases against his decisions since taking office were nullified.

This gross abrogation of democratic practice was compounded by the call for a retrial of those recently acquitted before the courts in cases related to the killing of protesters during the January 25 Revolution, and the decommissioning of the attorney general and appointment of a new one. Under the constitution, the attorney general is independent, nominated by the judiciary. The president cannot fire or replace the individual whose duty is to uphold the rule of law along with an independent judiciary.   

Citizens who realised that the declaration placed the president above the law took to the streets. In response, Mr Morsi issued yet another constitutional declaration on 8 December, which seemingly cancelled the first one.

Before the world, the president appeared to have backed down, but this was a tactical deception. The second declaration expressly retained all the consequences of the first, including Mr Morsi’s decision to fire the prosecutor general and appoint his replacement. It also stated that all such declarations (that only the president can issue) cannot be challenged before the courts, and all cases raised before the courts in this regard are hereby annulled.

Under pressure from the judiciary, Mr Morsi’s prosecutor general was forced to resign, only to retract his resignation days later. The uncertainty Egyptians feel is owed to the government’s inconsistency and the suspicion that the president, while seemingly all-powerful, is not the one calling the shots.

Although Mr Morsi announced that the Constituent Assembly had two months to finish drafting the constitution, it suddenly completed it and voted to approve its contents in an 18-hour marathon session. Instead of opening the draft for public dialogue, Mr Morsi immediately accepted it and called for the referendum to begin 15 December, leaving the public less than two weeks to form an opinion on this complicated document.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, whose office has studied the contents of the draft constitution and monitored the writing process, echoed the fears of many average Egyptians. "The lack of inclusive participation of various actors in Egypt in the constitution-drafting process is a matter of major concern, and one of the main reasons for the disastrous situation that has been developing in Egypt over the past couple of weeks," Pillay said, adding, " ... but I believe people are right to be very concerned — not just about the way the process has been short-circuited, but also about some of the elements included in, or missing from, the draft text."

In his speech 6 December, re-asserting that the referendum would go forward despite massive protests, Mr Morsi resembled his predecessor, mistaking the mood of the street and expecting its acquiescence.

But Mubarak’s political disconnect was the product of undue power held for three decades. Mr Morsi has barely taken office yet he is already isolated from at least half the population.

In a subsequent speech, Morsi admitted he’d issued the first constitutional declaration in order to get the constitution draft he favours passed, stating that once the referendum is over, the constitutional declaration, and special arrest powers awarded the military, would be waived. But forcing people into a corner is not the democratic way to build consensus and has only deepened divisions.

The first phase of the referendum took place with only partial judiciary supervision. More judges are refusing to supervise the second half and the Supreme Elections Commission secretary general has resigned, placing the legitimacy of the ballot in question and open to future legal challenge. Mr Morsi’s tactics have split the judiciary as well as the nation.  

What much of the public is meanwhile missing, is that President Morsi’s "Revolution Protection Decree," issued alongside the first constitutional declaration, is a cause for serious concern. It calls for the creation of revolutionary courts under presidentially appointed judges and for a revolutionary prosecutor (that he appoints) with offices nationwide and the right to imprison suspects for up to six months without a court order.

Several high-profile citizens who opposed these flagrant violations of the rule of law have been accused, by Mr Morsi’s appointed prosecutor, of treason. The trend towards dictatorial rather than democratic practice could not be clearer.

Egypt’s president has squandered the public’s good will, and having acted largely on behalf of his party and other Islamists, raised legitimate fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact running this country.

And after 83 years of marginalisation, from the time of King Farouk throughout the eras of three presidents, a newly empowered Brotherhood is showing its true colours, as a secretive organisation capable of militancy that demands absolute obedience and will not tolerate dissent. President Morsi may no longer be an official member of the Brotherhood, but his methods certainly bear their stamp.  

While the referendum was being hastily organised in the midst of vehement protests, Washington received a FJP delegation for a series of meetings. The UN secretary general, the head of the European Commission, the UN Commission for Human Rights, as well as the German government and Swiss courts have taken a strong position against the Egyptian government’s behaviour.  Why then is the so-called beacon of democracy, the United States, encouraging an organisation that is destroying Egypt’s democratic chances? 

The moment of truth for America has also arrived. It supported Mr Morsi’s election as part of a nascent democratic process, but he has repeatedly violated democratic principles, while his draft constitution and Revolution Protection Decree promise a greater dearth of civil rights than Egypt has ever known. Why isn’t America taking a stand? Throughout Egypt and the region, people have reached the conclusion that America’s foreign policy agenda takes priority over the cause of democracy.

Mr Morsi could still salvage his credibility, restore public trust and rescue Egypt from disaster by halting the referendum, rescinding his constitutional declarations and the Revolution Protection Decree and reforming the Constituent Assembly to reflect Egypt’s multifaceted reality.

Above all, if Mr Morsi wishes us to believe in his commitment to democracy he should announce that once a new constitution has been ratified, Egypt will have new parliamentary as well as presidential elections based on that document. This would reunite the country and win a vote of confidence at home and abroad that could set Egypt back on track.

Mr Morsi’s moment of truth has arrived, and as national reserves dwindle, debts mount, and dreams of democracy fade, so has Egypt’s.

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