Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have seriously overestimated the Islamist movement’s grip over Egyptians’ allegiances. Having passed a decree which awarded the presidency both legislative and executive powers, as well as rendering the President himself immune from judicial oversight, the Brotherhood now has on its hands protest as serious as any which a post-Mubarak government has faced. Several times, since the January Revolution’s heady days, have opposition groups called for milioneyya, million-man marches, but rarely have these resonated with the broader public.
The President’s power-grab, however, seems to have united disparate groups in protests which were not only well-attended in Cairo, but across the country. The only precedent for such intense opposition was nearly exactly one year ago, during the protests – and running battles – on Cairo’s Muhammad Mahmoud Street. But even then there was not the nation-wide breadth of protest seen on November 28.
Protestors in Tahrir Square. Nameer Galal/Demotix. All rights reserved.
A power grab too far?
The Constitutional Declaration itself contains a provision that undermines judicial oversight of both legislative and executive powers, by preventing the judiciary from either dissolving the upper house parliament (as they have done, claiming the electoral law to have been unconstitutional) or from impinging on the President’s decisions (Art. 2). It also confirms for the President the power to rule by decree (Art. 2, 6), which he ‘inherited’ from the military junta, and prevents his decrees from being challenged through the courts.
The Declaration also contains unusually specific measures, such as the establishment of a four-year term for the prosecutor-general (Art. 3), and in what is hardly standard fare in constitutions, orders the reopening of trials against former Mubarak regime figures (Art. 1). The single most worrying article for the Brotherhood’s opponents is the sixth. This article states that, “in case of the emergence of a danger threatening the January 25 Revolution, the life of the nation, national unity, national integrity or that impedes the work of the State’s institutions, the President shall possess the power to undertake all necessary measures to face such danger, in compliance with the law”. The article’s formulation entails the same kind of vacuity that enabled many authoritarian regimes before Morsi’s to cover power grabs in a thin veil of legitimacy. Moreover, while the President does have the right to pass a law or administrative decree, constitutional declarations must be put to a referendum – as even the military junta did – which thus far is not on the horizon.
The President’s move is of greater concern because it comes in the context of a bitter climate of contestation between the Brotherhood and its political arm on the one hand, and opposition forces on the other, each side protesting the other’s unwillingness to compromise. Morsi and the Brotherhood claim they are not without their reasons, trying to stigmatize the Constitutional Court as felool, remnants of the previous regime appointed by Mubarak. Some elements of the former regime doubtless have been attempting to protect their power and are distrustful of the Brotherhood, but the judiciary in general, and the Constitutional Court in particular, are far from Mubarak stooges. And, it is the judiciary in general that will be negatively affected by this declaration.
The Brotherhood: a non-hegemonic actor
The instrument of ‘constitutional declarations’ is not without precedent: it was used by the military junta to change and override portions of Egypt’s 1971 Constitution, leaving post-Mubarak Egypt in a state of limbo. But in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s removal, much Egyptian public opinion was at least ready to give the military the benefit of the doubt. It was this perception of a ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ of sorts for the then-executive power that allowed the junta to impose the sweeping changes contained in its March 2011 Constitutional Declaration and its exponential expansion after the referendum.
It is far from clear that the Brotherhood has this kind of popular legitimacy today, as it attempts to secure its grip on all levers of power. Its legitimacy was shaky to start with: the close presidential race between Morsi and Ahmad Shafiq – Mubarak’s last Prime Minster and epitome of his regime’s unwillingness to change – already illustrated the depth of feeling the Brotherhood faces. Morsi won only by a very small margin, and did so thanks to those who voted against Shafiq rather than for the Brotherhood. Since then, his actions in power appear aimed primarily at shoring up the Brotherhood’s position rather than building bridges with the opposition with the view to a democratic transition. Not only that, but in the eyes of many Egyptians he has singularly failed – quite aside from issues of style – simply by not addressing the issues most Egyptians care about; particularly jobs, social justice, corruption and abuse of power.
The intensity and geographical breadth of recent protests against Morsi’s decree suggest that, unlike the broad-based support for the military junta’s undoubtedly authoritarian move in March 2011, the Brotherhood is far from a politically or ideologically hegemonic actor.
Egyptian artists march from the Cairo Opera House into Tahrir Square to join the protests. Demotix/Sallie Pisch. All rights reserved.
This opposition is not simply a question of the economy being in tatters, the security forces remaining unreformed, or because the armed forces retain intact both their repressive capacities and their vast economic empire - although all these factors antagonise and mobilise many. The Brotherhood’s problem is political. It was eager to don the mantle of the January Revolution, but as champion of the Uprising, it was always a very unlikely candidate: its social policies may worry western governments (and plenty of non-Islamist Egyptians), but its economic policies offer no substantive difference from its Mubarak-era predecessor, the now-defunct National Democratic Party.
Politically, despite having more popular support than any other Egyptian party, the Brotherhood was a conservative political force that did not challenge the foundations of Egypt’s socio-political system before the January Uprising: it has remained so since. It was clear from the outset, for example, that the Brotherhood leadership opposed the January 25 protests: all its higher echelons were opposed to the protests, with the exception of Abdul Moneim Aboul Futouh, later Presidential hopeful, ejected from the organisation, who would receive 17.5% of the presidential vote. The Brotherhood was also the first to negotiate with Mubarak when he was still in power, and then equally eager to bargain with the military junta at least until they felt they could remove its leadership. Nor has the Brotherhood’s record in government been impressive for either reformist or revolutionary fervour, failing to carry out serious reforms of the all-important security sector, and passing laws on NGOs and trade unions which cement the government’s power.
Economically, there is little sign of change in those ‘neoliberal’ policies which the former regime pushed and which the January Uprising so clearly stood against. Moreover, in total contrast to its attitude towards the military, the Brotherhood has not even attempted to engage with the – generally leftist – independent trade unions, and has not reformed the trade union laws, but attempted to neutralise them. It is worth remembering that it is these independent unions, rather than political parties, which provide the stiffest and best-organised opposition to the Brotherhood itself: and that, unlike the Brotherhood, these groups really were active in the 2011 January Revolution.
The Brotherhood’s rise to power is taking place with remarkably little in the way of manifest concern from western capitals. And while the continuity it represents with respect to the Palestinian question is an important reason for this, Egypt’s essentially unchanged economic policies under the Brotherhood are an important part of the reason for the quick western acceptance of Egypt’s Islamist government.
Overplaying its hand?
So why is the Brotherhood running roughshod over its opponents? Perhaps it feels its grip on power is increasingly secure, or that brokering the Hamas-Israel truce for Gaza gave it sufficient political capital to push through Morsi’s Declaration. Perhaps Morsi feels that he has cemented backing from the US and the EU. Perhaps, since the Constituent Assembly’s confirmation of the armed forces’ considerable privileges (insulating them from civilian oversight, reaffirming their claim to intervene in politics, and guaranteeing their vast economic empire), the Brotherhood feels that its unspoken deal with the new military leadership gives it latitude to disregard popular (not just party) opposition.
Be that as it may, both in the substance of policy and methods used, government by the ‘revolutionary’ Brotherhood is similar in many ways to Mubarak’s. But just as his regime, as impressive as its security apparatus was, remained ultimately brittle, vulnerable to dissent and therefore hypersensitive to it, the shriller notes of the Brotherhood’s attacks on its opponents perhaps betray an awareness of the political tightrope it is walking, caught between the elitism and personal interests of its leadership, and the revolutionary demands for social justice it is trying to ride.
On Wednesday, PM Hesham Qandil used language his predecessors might envy him, claiming that, “The police are for the first time protecting the peaceful demonstrators,” but that, “it becomes difficult when thugs infiltrate”: the following day, the Brotherhood newspaper Freedom and Justice calls supporters of opposition leaders Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohammed ElBaradei ‘thugs’, FJP Vice-President Essam al-Erian called demonstrators “counter-revolutionary feloul” (throw-overs from Mubarak’s regime), and Morsi himself claimed that he issued the Declaration because he “sensed a danger to the nation,” in what might have been a none-too-subtle reference to those ‘foreign hands’ and their Egyptian minions which the Brotherhood has blamed for local woes in the past.
The revolution continues
The Brotherhood is perhaps more politically vulnerable than it would like, and its attempts to ‘occupy’ all state institutions may or may not succeed, but there is more to the current demonstrations than opposition to the Brotherhood. These protests reveal the breadth and depth of feeling which signal that Egypt’s revolutionary political phase is far from over. Significant portions of the population remain politically mobilised and will not simply stand by while political elites govern the post-Mubarak transition ignoring them in the way the general population was ignored under the previous regime. Since its heady days in January-February 2011, it is only when opposition has been determined to put direct pressure on the elites in power that concessions have been won, so it is unsurprising that Egyptian are all too aware of the importance of continued popular pressure on government.
This pressure is especially important since it is clear that both in political and in economic terms, the kind of ‘transition’ being envisaged for Egypt by both its political elites and their international counterparts entails purely superficial reforms designed to appear to ‘respond’ to popular demands, while retaining intact the substance of Mubarak-era policies.
The European Union, for example, is happy to talk about ‘sustainable and equitable growth’, but envisions this taking place through the kinds of privatization and market-opening measures which have devastated living conditions for most of Egypt’s poor and its middle classes over the past decade and a half. It is happy to talk of democracy, but is nervous about mass political mobilisation, to say nothing of the role of the independent unions. The galvanizing mix of rejection of neoliberal economic policy, mass protest and challenge to the established elites is something western governments are unlikely to welcome in the Middle East, as much as at home.
In the end, even if Morsi and the Brotherhood manage to secure their hold on power, and draw on the levers of coercion as Mubarak did before them, to extend the regime’s control over the military, and to win the unwavering support of international backers, but without resolving its legitimacy issues – i.e. without addressing the reasons for the revolution – it is likely to remain as brittle as its predecessor: capable of coercing, of commanding fear, but not respect.
Egypt’s Revolution, like Tunisia’s, first and foremost represent the rejection of this combination of façade political liberalism, economic ‘oligarchization’ under the guise of privatization, and the attempt to convince a population that it is only through elected representatives that democracy can be achieved.