On Thursday November 22, Mohamed Morsi placed himself above the judiciary by making his decisions immune from appeal. As he already held the legislative and executive powers, following a constitutional declaration of August 12, it is tempting to describe this spectacular move as the establishment of a personal dictatorship. Yet in the light of the rest of the text and the context of political transition, it still seems rather risky and clumsy.
Egyptian transition progress depends on the adoption of a constitution. It is a necessary condition for holding legislative elections, and therefore the establishment of a parliament and a legitimate government. However, the Constituent Assembly was, on one hand, weakened by successive withdrawals of representatives from secular political parties, the church and trade unions, and on the other hand threatened by an appeal before the Supreme Constitutional Court.
By preventing the Constituent Assembly from being dissolved through article 5 of the declaration, and immunizing the latter from cancellation by the courts, Morsi hoped to ensure the pace of the transition in order to benefit quickly from a legitimate institutional foundation. Indeed, the worrying economic situation and the expectations generated by the revolution require urgent reforms.
The people tend to judge the president and his organization of origin, the Muslim Brotherhood, as responsible for the inertia caused by the institutional blur. The decay of the situation accompanies a steep drop in the popularity of the Brotherhood, distressing in the face of an upcoming parliamentary poll.
Mohamed Morsi seemed to want to downplay his move with two concessions to the opposition. First, he provided the Constituent Assembly with two additional months to propose a text. It had been hastily completing its work in order to organize a referendum prior to the decision of the High Constitutional Court on its fate. The lack of debate engendered by this indecent haste was what provoked withdrawals from the Assembly. By extending the constitutional negotiation, Morsi must have hoped that the institution would recompose itself and retrieve a semblance of representativeness.
He neglected, however, the emotionally charged nature of the Egyptian political scene. This decision has widened the gap between actors identifying themselves as seculars and Islamists. The latter generally praised the president’s decision, whereas the former, feeling cornered, have understood it as an increase in Muslim Brotherhood control over the political transition and have initiated a popular protest movement against the declaration.
Overwhelmed by the scale of the contestation Morsi appears to have changed his mind. The Constituent Assembly further increased its pace being pushed from behind by the Muslim Brotherhood and adopted a final draft on Friday after a 15 hour session. In the process, Morsi called a constitutional referendum on December 15, probably hoping that it could divert the political agenda from its declaration and ensure a quick return to legal normality. However, this announcement has exacerbated the indignation of the opposition which is under the impression of being blackmailed: either it votes yes on the constitutional referendum, or Morsi keeps unlimited powers.
Secondly, Morsi agreed to the establishment of exceptional justice: article 1 stipulates the reopening of prosecutions of perpetrators of crimes against the January 25 revolutionaries. A series of acquittals in the cases of the Battle of the Camel and the Mubarak trial had angered revolutionaries. However, the inclusion of this measure in an authoritarian package gave many of them the impression of being fooled: Is Morsi now instrumentalizing the revolution to settle his accounts with remnants of the old regime, they asked? At the same time it is noteworthy that in view of current clashes involving the police and some revolutionary groups, Morsi has put himself in a rather vulnerable position when it comes to accusations of ‘crimes against the revolution’.
More concretely, Morsi has drastically compromised his function of umpire, which comes with being the president. Rather respected by the political class, he was having talks with the Brotherhood’s opposition, who could perceive him as a mediator. Last month, he received Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohamed Al Baradei at the presidential palace. Now they are calling him a dictator.
In the wake of his election Morsi was portrayed as being devoid of power. Six months later, he has it all. But without a secure police force and military base and facing disapproval from legal, secular and revolutionary circles, is this role not too burdensome for any human being?
The author of this article wishes to thank Baudouin Long and Dorien Keizer