Analysis |

Morsi's Bid for Absolute Power Revives a Dormant Arab Spring

Senior analyst Zvi Bar'el writes that,lacking a functioning parliament, Tahrir Sqaure protesters continue to serve as an open 'parliament,' one showing the regime the limits of its own power.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"Morsi put an end to the Arab Spring," wrote prominent columnist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed in the A-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper Saturday of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

"His decisions are as important and as menacing as the events of the revolution. Morsi is now president, judiciary and legislature," al Rashed added. In the Egyptian liberal paper al Watan, Ammar Ali Hassan wrote that "Morsi handed us time bombs wrapped in silk, which will explode in our faces." The country's Supreme Judicial Council described Morsi's recently issued decrees as "an assault on the justice system."

In a rejuvenated Tahrir Sqaure, protests against the Egyptian President continued, taking place opposite rallies organized by Morsi supporters, with clashes between the two groups thus far leaving more than 220 wounded. Leaders of Egypt's secular and liberal movements, such as Mohammed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahi, who have all run for the presidency, and lost, returned to Tahrir to lead protests against Morsi's string of recent decrees, the most important of which puts presidential decisions above the judiciary and, effectively, the law.

Morsi's firery 45-minute speech failed to convince his rivals, even when he pledged that he did not intend to harm anyone, and when he explained that the decisions were meant to "protect the revolution." The same revolution that lead to his ascendency to the presidency, on the backs of Tahrir Square's protesters, is now drawing the line of consent between the president and the public.

Egypt's papers, including those run by the state wrote that "The decision to compensate the families of those hurt as a result of the actions of [former President Hosni] Mubarak's regime during last year's protests [and not just the families of the victims] is an insult."

"The victims didn't shed blood for monetary compensation but for principles and ideas, the same which Morsi now insults," they added.

This mass protest, which threatens to bring the justice system to a standstill, is now the toughest challenge the Egyptian president faces, coming in the wake, and perhaps because of, the great diplomatic achievement he scored in negotiating the end of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

The question arises as to what brought on these draconian decisions, decisions to cement as law all presidential decrees made since Morsi was appointed as president last June. And not just as law, but as a law that could not be appealable by any legal authority, including the courts, which would be unable to dissolve the constitution-writing panel and the upper house of parliament.

Anti-Morsi protesters chanting slogans in front of the Supreme Judicial Council building in Cairo November 24, 2012.
Mohamed Morsi.
Protesters running for cover after Egyptian riot police fires tear gas during clashes following a demonstration against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir square on Nov. 23, 2012.
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Anti-Morsi protesters chanting slogans in front of the Supreme Judicial Council building in Cairo November 24, 2012.Credit: Reuters
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Mohamed Morsi.Credit: AP
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Protesters running for cover after Egyptian riot police fires tear gas during clashes following a demonstration against Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir square on Nov. 23, 2012.Credit: AFP
Tahrir Morsi

Morsi is concerned that controversy in the special assembly over the wording of the new constitution, particularly regarding the link between the constitution and Muslim law, and the resignation of many of the assembly's members as a result of it, will delay it's drafting, meant to end by mid-December, and thus push back the assembly of a new parliament.

Moreover, Egypt's Constitutional Court is discussing a suit urging the dissolution of the assembly in charge of writing the constitution, since, the suit argues, it no longer represents the entire Egyptian public and has a majority of Islamist representatives. This assembly has already been dispersed once before, and if the court opts to dissolve it again, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could lose control of its composition, which could delay Egypt's return to parliamentary life for many more months. However, while the aspiration to end the drafting of the constitution, one which Morsi extended by two more months, is a worthy cause, even though the means in which he chose to bolster the assembly are both wrong and foreboding.

It isn't clear if Morsi anticipated the extent of protest and resistance to his decisions. However, now, when demonstrations threaten to spiral into unchecked rebellion, with the eruption of violent clashes between police and protesters and between those opposing his rule and his supporters, the Egyptian president needs to hit the brakes. Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky has already said that he intended to hold talks with the judges over their objections to Morsi's decrees, saying that "he shared some of their reservations." Morsi's political advisor Ayman al-Sayyad said on Friday that the proposal to hold early parliamentary elections, before the constitution is drafted, was "an excellent plan," one which will be discussed on Saturday during an emergency meeting of the president's advisors. That decision, al-Sayyad said, would reinstate the balance of power between the excutive and judiciary branches. It's possible that by the end of Saturday or Sunday, Morsi will announce a string of "complementary decrees" that will assuage the severity of his recent decisions.

Egypt has been running without a parliament since June, when the Constitutional Court ruled that the election of a third of the house's members was void due to legal irregularities in the way they presented their candidacy. Morsi, who has taken legislative powers, formerly in the hands of the ruling military, upon himself, has since become both the legislature and the head of the executive branch. His recent decrees also positioned him above the judiciary. Holding early elections, however, won't immediately resolve the issue, since it seems that Morsi would first like to take advantage of the added time he gave the assembly. Only if they remain deadlocked, would he announce a vote, the preparations for which would take another two or three months.

Meanwhile, Tahrir Sqaure continues to serve as an open "parliament," one showing the regime the limits of its power. Morsi may aspire to absolute rule, but this is no longer Mubarak's Egypt, or that of former President Anwar Sadat. When Morsi's critics include government newspapers, run by editors named by the president himself, and when members of the liberal movement unflinchingly challenge the regime, it seems unlikely that the Egyptian president indeed "put an end to the Arab Spring."

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Egyptians watching a burning police vehicle while security forces pump volleys of tear gas at thousands of demonstrators near Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 23, 2012.Credit: AP

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