Morsi's first year: The costs, benefits of three controversial decrees

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Wednesday 26 Jun 2013

As President Morsi's first year in office draws to a close, Ahram Online looks back at his three most contentious policy decisions

Mohammed Morsi
File photo: Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, left, shakes hands with Former Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

It has been an action-packed year for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Since day one, the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate — elected by a narrow margin last June over Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq — has had to confront high expectations.


"Morsi's major decisions regarding domestic politics in his first year as president could be likened to electric shocks," said political analyst Tarek Fahmi, referring to actions which set the president on a collision course with the country's most sensitive institutions: the military and the judiciary.

Attempt to reinstate parliament

On 8 July 2012, the then-newly inaugurated Morsi issued a decree that reinstated the People's Assembly. The lower house of parliament had been dissolved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), based on a ruling by the High Constitutional Court (HCC). The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had controlled a majority of seats in the assembly.

"It was a priority for the Brotherhood at the time to send a message to the military council that the weight in the power struggle was no longer on the military's end, and that the president is now in charge," said Sobhy Esseila, a political researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "They could have thought that such a move against the military council, which was facing increased criticism at the time, would also boost their popularity with the revolutionaries."

The abrupt move, however, elicited strong reactions from then members of the HCC, who accused the president of disrespecting the rule of law, because the assembly was dissolved according to court order.

In the first — and only — session after it was reinstated, which lasted just 10 minutes, the then-Speaker of the assembly, Saad El-Katatni, referred the matter back to the high court. Though the presidency defended the legality of its action, El-Katatni's referral was largely seen as a move to prevent conflict with SCAF and the judiciary.

"Politically, the costs of sending this message to the military council were possibly too high. The strong backlash from the judiciary and overwhelming media attention were bigger than what they might have imagined,” said Esseila. “However, eventually they did succeed at their original aim, which was reflected in sacking the heads of the military council only a month afterwards."

"In retrospect, the attempt at reinstating the People's Assembly could be considered the first clash in the ongoing standoff with the judiciary, but the political message was not meant for them."

Putting paid to SCAF rule

Fast forward to six weeks after his first day in office: the president announced that he had sent the country's top two army generals and leaders of SCAF, Mohamed Tantawi and Sami Anan, into retirement, following the 5 August attack near Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip that left 16 Egyptian border guards dead.

The abruptness of the move came as a shock to the public, supporters and opponents alike. Many observers at the time expressed surprise at how easily the military council's grip on power — which appeared to tighten during Egypt's transitional phase — was seemingly weakened in a single day.


"The expected risk for that kind of decision was possible internal rebellion from the army against the president, but Morsi and his group knew that it was unlikely to happen," said Fahmi. "Throughout Egypt's past regimes, presidents have sacked major army figures with no backlash from the younger tiers.”

“Besides, [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi is known inside the army to be Tantawi's main man," Fahmi added, referring to the current defence minister and Tantawi’s replacement.

Other Islamist parties and groups strongly praised the move and commended the president for overturning the military council's grip on power.

Morsi's critics, however, alleged that the move was part of a “safe exit” deal between the Brotherhood and the generals, a way to dodge calls for prosecution over the military’s responsibility for human rights abuses committed during the 18 months of their rule.

"Regardless of whether there really was a deal between the Brotherhood and the military, what should always be noted is that the dynamics of the Egyptian army's role in the country's politics go beyond the mere personalities of the military's leaders," Fahmi asserted.

The 22 November bombshell

The presidential decree of 22 November is largely viewed as Morsi's most dramatic move. It sacked the then-prosecutor general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, before his retirement age, and appointed Talaat Abdallah in his place; immunised all presidential decisions from judicial review; and shielded the Shura Council and the Constituent Assembly, both dominated by Islamists, from dissolution by any judicial body.

Islamist parties had been calling for a purge of the judiciary, which they accused of being stacked with figures from the old regime. Many feared the HCC would deem the council and the assembly illegitimate, with less than a month left before the public was scheduled to vote in a constitutional referendum.

The issuance of the decree sparked massive anti-government protests, estimated in hundreds of thousands of people, and including opposition leaders as well as judges. The protests were the largest since Morsi took office.

"The decree came with an aspect of urgency. [It was] an alleged preemptive move against the HCC verdict, as though there was no other way. But the president still had the option to personally intervene and present compromises to achieve national consensus, which could have neutralised the effect of the verdict,” said political analyst Sameh Fawzi.

Morsi's declaration was explained by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party as a necessary measure to protect elected institutions. Islamist parties distributed flyers arguing that the decree would fulfil the revolution's demands of purging the Mubarak-appointed judiciary.

The flyers also said that the Shura Council was one of the revolution's achievements, and that if it were dissolved it would block the path to stability and prolong the transitional period.

"But the [decree], as a result of severe polarisation, brought the exact opposite of stability, which remains true until today," said Fawzi. "In that sense, the declaration would have defeated its own purpose."

Rumours had also surfaced that the president was informed of an impending HCC verdict that would declare the presidential elections illegitimate.

"In the face of that [possible] court order to revoke his presidency, which would have reinstated the military in power, Morsi had no other choice but to issue the constitutional declaration, and it would have been too risky to explain it to his opponents," said historian Mohamed El-Gawadi.

Many observers called the decree Morsi's biggest mistake, as it appeared to be an unabashed power-grab. Supporters argued that it was a necessary measure to resist a perceived conspiracy against the country's newly established institutions.

"The effects of such heightened rifts reverberate until today, and were reflected in the confidence-withdrawal [Rebel] campaign and the call for protests to remove Morsi on his first anniversary in power," Fawzi said.

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