Don’t be a Pharaoh
Egypt is at a crossroads. President Morsi must turn it towards the rule of law
Published at 12:01AM, November 27 2012
Today in Cairo, supporters of Egypt’s President will gather in their tens of thousands in Abdeen Square, a few miles from the Nile. Furious critics of the regime will gather at the same time a short drive away in Tahrir Square. Violent clashes are all but inevitable.
Egypt is in ferment again. The immediate cause is a power-hungry president, again. Yet this is no rerun of the drama that filled the capital 19 months ago. Since then, the revolution that removed Hosni Mubarak from power has carried the country through two momentous elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged from nine decades as a secret society to become the most powerful political movement in North Africa. The rise of the Brotherhood and of President Morsi has been at the expense of the judicial and military elite that ruled under Mr Mubarak and is now fighting to keep some control over the drafting of a new constitution.
More than at any moment since February last year, the country’s fate now depends on the decisions of one man. Last night Mr Morsi faced a choice between compromise and a fast track to dictatorship. It is vital that he compromise.
Five months after being sworn in and little more than five hours after Hillary Clinton left Egypt last week, Mr Morsi stunned listeners at home and abroad with a speech in which he put himself explicitly and unequivocally above the law. Even as he basked in acclaim for his role broking a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, he issued a decree claiming sweeping new powers to overrule decisions made by the courts, the constitutional assembly and the legislature that is supposed to emerge from it.
Mr Morsi had his reasons. A supreme court consisting of Mubarak-appointed judges was rumoured to be on the point of dissolving the constitutional assembly as it had earlier dissolved the newly elected parliament. But the President’s timing was crass, his wording was extreme and the backlash has been severe.
For the past four days unrest has returned to Cairo and the cities of the Nile Delta. Some 500 people have been injured and at least two killed. More than a dozen offices of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood have been attacked. Leftist and liberal parties formed since the revolution are united in opposition to the Brotherhood for the first time since its ascendancy.
Yet any Western observers still searching for green shoots of secularism as a result of the Arab Spring should be under no illusion: Islamism has been the overwhelming winner of Egypt’s first encounter with democracy, and incipient thuggery the runner-up. Islamist parties won 71 per cent of seats in January’s parliamentary election. Mr Morsi won the presidential election, then issued an arrest warrant for the former air force officer whom he defeated. There are liberals in Egypt, but nowhere near power.
The experiment under way in Cairo will show if Egyptian Islamism can co-exist with the most basic tenet of democracy — one person, one vote — and with the rule of law. The omens are not good. The Brotherhood’s record fuels deep concern that Egypt may yet go the way of Iran in 1979. But there is an alternative in a deal being offered by Mr Morsi’s Justice Minister. It would allow him to save face, step back and choose moderation over madness. It must be seized.